After last year's Love Connected, Hot Summer Days is this year's Chinese-language entry into the ensemble romance genre. Appropriately, it's also Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox's first entry into the Chinese film market, meaning it's a handsomely produced piece of romantic fluff that eschews reality for a whole lot of charm. Through the eyes of famous photographer Wing Shya (who previously directed a segment in the omnibus Heroes in Love) and Tony Chan, the only thing prettier than their colorful and polished images is their photogenic cast, who spend almost the entire film sweating. Just that image alone makes it sound better than Love Connected.
From Hong Kong to Beijing, what appears to be the worst heat wave in the history of man (apparently the result of global warming) has everyone in a romantic fever. While recovering from a heat stroke, a Hong Kong single father (Jacky Cheung) accidentally starts up a romance with an aspiring pianist-turned-foot masseuse in Shenzhen (Rene Liu) via the wonders of cross-border text messaging.
Elsewhere in Hong Kong, a foodie writer (Vivian Hsu) returns to Hong Kong to convince a successful sushi chef (Daniel Wu, sporting a porn star mustache to look older) that they should finally be together. An air conditioner repairman (Nicholas Tse) literally pursues a mysterious motorcycle girl (Barbie Hsu) with a penchant for philanthropy, while his beach vendor father (Gordon Liu) runs around the beach telling bad jokes to girls in bikinis.
Across the border in the mainland, a young village boy (Chinese boy group Bobo's Jing Boran) pursues a local factory girl (Angelababy, almost unrecognizable here) by standing outside the factory at noon for 100 dayss. Meanwhile, an arrogant photographer (Duan Yihong) and his loyal assistant (Fu Xinbo, the other half for Bobo) travel across the country to hunt down a model (Michelle Wai) after they suspect her of cursing the photographer into blindness. In a world that could only exist in the movies, all these plots naturally connect, and in incredible ways that would surely make John Locke proud.
The only way to buy into this mass of coincidences is to simply assume that these stories take place in an alternate, prettier world. However, the problem is that the filmmakers also expect us to relate to the characters. Thanks to the immediately likable cast, identifying with the characters is easy most of the time, especially in the Jacky Cheung-Rene Liu story. The two actors spend most of their screentime apart, but their story is the one most grounded in reality, and their naturally likable, everyperson qualities make them easy to root for as well. The hyperactive acting by the cast as a whole (Jacky and Rene included) does get a little grating, but they are obviously having so much fun in their roles that it's easy to play along.
Hot Summer Days works best when it doesn't take itself too seriously. While the production values are seriously good, the film follows a recognizable Lunar New Year comedy formula, with plenty of cameos (one of them made my audience react in audible surprise), a brisk pace, and a bombastic Latin-style score. However, every story eventually hits a point of seriousness that goes against the tone set by the film, and the emotions that the filmmakers attempt to achieve rarely convince.
The blame for any unconvincing emotions falls upon the script by Chan and Lucretia Ho, which uses tired melodramatic clichés to achieve its emotional ends. The worst case is in the photographer story, which replies so much on expository dialogue in lieu of visuals that whenever the film shifts to that story, the brisk pace set by editor Wenders Li is abruptly stops. The Nicholas Tse-Barbie Hsu plot suffers from an overuse of a melodramatic device, but the two lead performances (especially from the Taiwanese Hsu, who speaks almost entirely in Cantonese here) and the actors' shared chemistry make up for it.
Surprisingly, the most balanced story of the bunch is the one between Angelababy and Jing Boran. The usually glamorous model sheds her hip image here to play an innocent village girl, and she shows enough comic timing and acting ability to make her underdeveloped character a convincing romantic target. Jing Boran is a little over-the-top as the desperate pursuer, but the story itself has enough light comic charm to carry it through its own tired set of melodrama clichés.
Hot Summer Days sounds and looks great most of the time, making it much easier to overlook its flaws. As long as the audience can accept the film's flaws as they would those in the film's Hollywood equivalents, then a good time is almost guaranteed. Hot Summer Days doesn't undo the fact that the ensemble romance genre has reached a point of excess, but it's fun enough to justify the genre a temporary reprieve. (Kevin Ma, 2010)