Chongqing Hot Pot: A Contemporary Screwball Comedy building women up one moment, then boxing them in the next.

 

As I was browsing online looking at the new movies that were coming out, I decided I wanted to see something that wasn’t as mainstream. I came upon a showing of Chongqing Hot Pot, a Chinese film that had recently come into a select amount of theaters. The movie was in Mandarin (with subtitles) and I thought it would be interesting to see how women were represented on screen outside of the U.S. The film itself was categorized online at fandango.com as a suspense/thriller, one of my favorite genres, so I called up my friend Peri and invited her along. We bought two tickets online for the AMC in Rosedale for $24. I was definitely not a fan of the price but I really wanted to see this film so we went for it. There wasn’t much of a description of the film but we watched the trailer, which showed what appeared to be three men needing the help of a woman for some sort of bank heist. We also found a few reviews online that stated the movie was filled with “holy shit” moments, and oh was it ever.

Upon arriving to the Monday night showing at 9:10, we were not encouraged to buy snacks or drinks but we wanted to snack so we did anyways. Huge mistake, I forgot how overpriced everything was and we essentially spent another $20 just on food, and by food I mean one large soda, one large popcorn and a snickers. It was a total rip-off. At this point we still hadn’t seen anyone else other than the employees, so we made our way to the designated theater with our overpriced snacks to find our seats. It was dark and I didn’t want to seem too creepy, but from what I could see there were only 8 other people in the theater along with Peri and I. We were the only white people in the theater and appeared to be the only women who had gone together. Everyone else was Asian, and so was everyone in the film itself, with the majority being men. There were two sets of couples; each consisting of what appeared to be a man and a woman, and the rest of the audience consisted of guys sitting by themselves watching alone.

As it turns out the film was a screwball comedy about three young men, Liu Bo, Xu Dong, and Four Eyes (that is actually what they call him), who have been friends since high school. They are from a lower economic background and are trying to make ends meet. After school they open up a hot pot restaurant (see video below) and business is not doing so well. In search of free electricity the men drill and dig a hole, trying to hook up to someone else’s electricity, but instead dig right into a bank vault filled with money. After panicking about how to fill the hole without being caught for digging, they find out that their old high school friend Yu Xiaohui works at the bank they have dug into and they decide to go to her for help. Yu Xiaohui comes up with a plan to not only fix the hole but also to take all the money as well, and that’s the general basis of the film.

Screwball comedy is a genre that was first conceptualized during the Great Depression in response to the economic hardships of the time and the censorship of film that was being carried out by the U.S. at the time. People wanted to be able to escape for an hour or so into another world and the movies were a way of doing that relatively cheaply. However the movies were becoming increasingly censored under a new legislature that deemed films too violent, too sexual, etc. for the public. Katie Hamlin, Dave Henning, and Lisa Jense of the University of Virgina discuss this on their website, writing “This particular genre of comedy developed within, and partially as a response to, these constraints. Sexual tension was sublimated into a battle of the sexes, enacted through verbal sparring. These are characters who love to hate each other in comedies about sex without sex. In many of these films, the director skillfully implies adultery in ways that are technically allowed under the Code” (2001). Screwball comedy places women in conflicting roles. On one hand the genre represents women in more empowering ways by tending to show women in positions of financial stability of their own doing, and as intellectual. The genre doesn’t show a lot of overt displays of pornographic representations of women, and the male gaze in terms of camera angles, costuming, etc. is much more subtle. However it is still there, and although women seem to be in positions of power in screwball comedy, they are still often portrayed in the same stereotypical representations that are found in other genres, i.e. bitchiness, men-hating, nagging, submissive, only interested in love, etc. Although over 85 years have gone by since the conception of the genre, Chongqing Hot Pot demonstrates that screwball comedy, even with it’s occasional admirable feminist moments, still misrepresents women in the same stereotypical ways on screen that it has done for decades, it is just more subtle.

Laura Mulvey wrote in her well-known piece Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema that “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (Mulvey 1975). What I did appreciate about Chongqing Hot Pot was the fact that there were actually several moments where this concept was flipped. One of the main aspects of the film that drives the plot centers around the fact that Yu Xiaohui has a long-term crush on Liu Bao. This develops after she sees him from a building and watches him singing and goofing around with Four Eyes and Xu Dong. In this way she actually takes the active position, as Liu Bao cannot see her and doesn’t know that she is watching him. However this active position is only in terms of the visual. In reality Yu Xiaohui is in the building because she was taken there by a gangster who tries to rape her but he ends up running off. In the movie she describes only feeling safe once she saw Liu Bao and what seems like her active gaze is reduced to the stereotypical “looking for a male hero” storyline.

After the initial look that Yu Xiaohui takes of Liu Bao, the rest of the film she is under the male gaze. After the three men find out she works in the bank, they send Liu Bao to “bump into her”. We see him looking at her from a far and the camera follows his gaze up her body. Even though she is clothed and not being overtly sexualized in costume, the camera still sexualizes her. In her discussion of “the gaze” within horror films, Linda Williams writes in her piece When the Woman Looks “The woman’s gaze is punished, in other words, by narrative processes that transform curiosity and desire into masochistic fantasy” (Williams 1984). While this punishment doesn’t happen once Yu Xiaohui sees Liu Bao gazing at her, it does come later once she finds herself in the middle of an actual bank robbery being conduced by men wearing creepy animal masks. Yu Xiaohui and her female employees are yelled at every time they look at the men in masks or jeered at. One woman who tries to escape is threatened to have her hands chopped off, and we then see her grovel on the floor with her skirt coming up begging while the men laugh. Her hands don’t end up being cut off, but she is still punished for her gaze and attempted escape, and shown in a sexualized manner on the ground in a submissive position to the men.

Besides Yu Xiaohui, the rest of the women in the film are represented as either bitchy and/or nagging. Yu Dong’s wife is never even seen, she is only represented through her phone calls with Yu Dong where she is heard incessantly nagging him in a very stereotypical screechy tone. Every time Yu Dong gets off the phone with her in the film he exclaims, “bitch!”. Liu Bao’s mom is one of the only other female characters, and she too is represented as nagging. Liu Bao is shown to have more concern for his grandfather than his mother who he is constantly brushing off. It is in this manner that this film squashes any momentary feminist triumphs that arise through out the film.

Honestly I was pretty disappointed with the film. Call it blind optimism but going into it I didn’t realize the film was a screwball comedy, and I thought it would better represent women. The trailer made it seem like it had a badass female lead, but in reality it was another screwball comedy that on the surface seemed to be about female empowerment, yet really was just another film in which women are boxed into stereotypical and age old representations of being nagging or bitchy, and needing men to save them. I would comment on the other movie goers’ reactions but the theater was SILENT during the film. Absolutely no one reacted at any point whatsoever. I felt like I was the only one reacting to anything so I tried to be quiet too. If I view the film again I will just need to use bell hooks’ “oppositional gaze” that she describes in her piece The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectatorship. Hooks writes, “When I returned to films as a young woman, after a long period of silence, I had developed an oppositional gaze. Not only would I not be hurt by the absence of female presence, or the insertion of violating representation, I interrogated the work, cultivated a way to look past race and gender for aspects of content, form, language” (hooks 1992). So this is what I will have to do with Chongqing Hot Pot. There was no diversity and it contained violating representations of women, but there were moments of female empowerment and strength that I will choose to focus on instead.

 

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Yu Xiaohui exerting an active gaze. 

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The Four main characters from left to right: Four Eyes, Liu Bao, Yu Xiaohui, and Yu Dong. 

What is Hot Pot?

 

Sources Cited:

hooks, bell. (2002). “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation, 115-131.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures (1989): 14-26. Web.

Williams, Linda. “When the Woman Looks” The Horror Film Reader (1984). Web.

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