Director – Coba Cheng – 2022 – Hong Kong – Cert. 12a – 94m
A young man successfully markets his mother’s chilli sauce in the pandemic lockdown until the lucrative business it unexpectedly generates is taken off him– out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, July 15th and in the US and Canada on Friday, July 22nd
This starts off with a very sweet – no, make that spicy – memory of 2002 when Coba Cheng (Edan Lui Cheuk-On) was a small boy of five and visited his mum’s village where he tried her chilli sauce for the first time. It burned his mouth, but was always a part of his life from then on.
Jump to mid-2020. Hong Kong, like everywhere else, is in the middle of the pandemic. Coba is now working his job from home, and he and his parents are struggling to live with each other in the same enforced space. His dad Alan (Ronald Cheng) is engaged in a no-way forward argument with a delivery man in a surgical mask who won’t tell him what the unknown package is until dad has paid the delivery fee, which dad won’t do until he knows what it is, which Mr. Delivery won’t divulge until the fee has been paid. His mum Rita (Gigi Leung) is even harder to deal with, being as obsessed and driven as she is by the sole motivation of becoming a homeowner.
When Coba posts on social media about his mum’s amazing home made chilli sauce, there an influx of social media traffic. Realising he’s inadvertently stumbled upon a niche in the market caused by the pandemic, i.e. people unable to go out to restaurants so being more adventurous with their cooking and open to buying promising foodstuffs online. He goes down the market and hunts for jars, eventually finding a type (of square jar) which doesn’t break when dropped like most jars do. He sells the jars of the sauce branded as Chiu Chiu Chiu and the money rolls in.
If this sounds too good to be true, sure enough, when the family, unable to cope with the demand, hire marketing guru Arnold to help, the latter rebrands the sauce as Chilli La, taking control of it off Coba and his family in the process.
The minutiae of the pandemic and mask-wearing, while handled nothing like as well as in Romania’s Bad Luck Banging Or Looney Porn (Radu Jude, 2021), is recreated on screen, which is a welcome change from all those films that pretendedthe lockdown wasn’t happening. This movie, however, was conceived as a pandemic story, with the home made chilli sales taking off on the back of the isolation caused by lockdown.
It may not be a masterpiece of the cinematic art form, but it’s a lot of fun. Memorable set pieces include the scene of Coba and his air stewardess girlfriend Sam (Angela Yuen) relaxing in the bath behind the shower curtain when his dad decides to come in, sit on the lavatory to relieve himself. It’s a scene in which the couple must endure revolting smells which would have played well with ‘scratch and sniff’ technology, as evidenced by the hand appearing through the ajar door to spray air freshener out of a can at the end of the scene.
An equally crude (and funny) scene involves dad, drafted in to help make chilli sauce, do so without gloves, burn his hands then go to the lavatory where off camera his unwashed hands burn his private parts.
Also worthy of note is a reinvention of the old parlour game ‘stone, scissors, paper’ in which Alan is repeatedly and hilariously slapped on the side of the face by his bespectacled, exercise-obsessed sister, known to Coba as Aunt Wendy (Sandra Ng Kwan Yue).
It’s unashamedly populist and not a movie that’s going to challenge anything (you wouldn’t know, for instance, that Hong Kong is currently undergoing an authoritarian crackdown at the hands of the mainland Chinese authorities who now control the Territory). Being a lightweight, knockabout Hong Kong comedy, it’s all pretty silly but the sort of silly that makes you leave the cinema with a big grin on your face. In a week of okay films destined to be forgotten in a few years’ time, this is arguably the one to spend your money on.
Chilli Laugh Story is out in cinemas in the UK on July 15th and in the US and Canada on Friday, July 22nd.