Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Nothing Can't Be Undone by a Hot Pot

What an absolutely fantastic title, even for those of us who have never heard what is certainly played like a trite, much-used expression (maybe childish?). Twenty years ago, Miramax would have purchased this, renamed it something like "The Hidden Room", and maybe that would have gotten it into a couple more suburban theaters, 14 months from now, after everyone in Chinatown has obtained legit/bootleg copies.

Staying on the name - every listing I've seen insists on using "HotPot" as one camel-case word, and it's the first time I've seen that. Is it common?

Mei you yi dun huo guo jie jue bu liao de shi (Nothing Can't be Undone by a Hot Pot)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 May 2024 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

I occasionally joke about really needing to learn mahjongg so that I can understand Chinese movies, but I'm a bit more serious than usual here. Nothing Can't Be Undone… starts with a mahjongg game and certainly uses the tiles as symbols early; just how much does the game's particular mix of strategy and chance reflect what's going on in the movie? Maybe not that much, but it feels like knowing a bit might help.

The plan begins to come together at Nine Cakes, a combination Chinese Opera house and mahjongg parlor which is a longstanding family business in a small city. The owner (Yu Qian) posted a note on Weibo the previous day and deleted it as soon as he got three responses for a friendly game. Nobody gives their names, which is probably wise, because the host is looking to put together a small crew for a bit of crime: While visiting Fu Yu (Tian Yu), a local official in charge of choosing what will be bulldozed in the upcoming redevelopment of the area, to offer the sort of bribe that is expected to save his building, he has noted that there's clearly a fake wall in his bathroom, and where's the harm in stealing bribe money? It seems to go pretty smoothly, at least until they get back and "Nine Cakes", mousy fortune teller "Chicken" (Yang Mi), food deliveryman "Seven Grand" (Li Jiuxiao), and tough guy "Fortune" (Yu Ailei) realize that they brought back a lot more than they planned - and are stuck backstage until the show ends.

The script by director Ding Sheng and a couple of others is a weird one, in that it messes around with the rhythms of this sort of crime flick, but not always in a way that really works: The actual break-in has moments of enjoyable problem-solving, but is over too quickly, in part because they want to reveal things later, and the bit that's supposed to be a pressure cooker never seems like there's no escape - what's really stopping someone from just walking out? That segment also reveals so many previously unseen connections between characters and their stories, despite what seems like a pretty good randomizer at the start, that it seems to be trying to overwhelm skepticism, like all these ties must amount to some sort of supportive structure even if you can't quite see how it works, so you may as well just enjoy the fun of people with no reason to trust their new comrades turning on each other.

That is kind of enjoyable, once the movie gets going; there's some bloat in the middle as the first revelation seems to get a lot of time, but when the second or third hits and one character gets to drop a mask, things pick up nicely. The movie gets a sort of spark whose absence wasn't quite obvious until the role was filled. It's a nifty little group regardless - Yu Qian brings one-last-job weariness to someone presumably doing this for the first time, Yang Mi has oddball charm without trying too hard, and Tian Yu feels like just the right sort of opportunistically corrupt - and a big part of what works is that, even as we learn more backstory, they never feel like they've presented a truly false face: Information may have been hidden, but not necessarily their essential natures.

And even if the mahjongg isn't as key as all that in terms of giving the audience (especially the local one) something to hang the mood on, the other elements of the setting set a beat that probably carries the movie more than anything else: The Chinese opera in the next room is all over the soundtrack with its percussive traditional instruments, and the hot pot itself is a great thing to cut away to every few minutes, boiling even while folks aren't paying out much attention, divided into little boxes so that everyone can keep something to themselves, and giving everyone a chance to occasionally just stuff their face (really just packing it in with their chopsticks) in case you'd forgotten what sort of greed was making the movie go. The background details are a nice framework.

Dial either of these seemingly minor bits of atmospherics back a bit, and it's probably a duller movie, maybe even a frustrating one, but with them out works more often than not.

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