Movie Review: Chilli Laugh Story (闔家辣)

Billed as the first Chinese New Year movie to come out in the summer, CHILLI LAUGH STORY brings some welcome spice to the cinemas. While Hong Kong audiences and Cantonese speakers will appreciate all the local in-jokes and double entendre, foreign audiences won’t be left out of the loop. The subtitles will explain it all… provided they can read them fast enough.

Coba Cheung (Cantopop boy band member Edan Lui Cheuk-on/呂爵安, making his film debut) is a 20-something young man who lives with his parents Rita (Gigi Leung/梁詠琪) and Alan (Ronald Cheng/鄭中基) in their modest village house in the New Territories. He works from home as an event promoter but covid and the government’s restrictions on crowds have put an end to that ambition. One day, while watching his hardworking mother whipping up a batch of the family’s super-delicious chilli sauce, he comes up with the idea to make and sell the homemade condiment online. Though shiftless Alan doesn’t want to get involved, Rita is game and the two of them start their cottage industry. With so many restaurants closed and people eating more at home though, the sauce becomes an immediate success and their business quickly grows. It doesn’t take long for the sauce to hit the radar of an enigmatic business entrepreneur who offers to partner with Coba to bring the sauce to the masses.

First-time director Coba Cheng/鄭晉軒, who wrote the story based on his own family’s experience along with screenwriter Matthew Chow, has done a great job bringing current Hong Kong life to the big screen. It’s amazing that some of the film’s jokes made it past our city’s increasingly obsequious censors but his producer, Sandra Ng Kwan-yue/吳君如, may have had a lot to do with that. The multi-talented award-winning actress, comedian, director and radio personality also pulls double-duty in the film as Coba’s Auntie Wendy, donning a pair of nerdy glasses and a frumpy wig. There is a post-credit scene that accurately recalls a bizarre event that happened here a few months back that had the whole city texting “WTF???”. I wouldn’t be surprised if the censors up north will deem this scene too subversive for their fragile audiences.

For about the first two-thirds of the film, the story zips along – sometimes a bit too fast for non-Cantonese speakers to read the subtitles from beginning to end – then it seemingly grinds to a halt as Cheng and Chow appear not to have worked out how to introduce the story’s inevitable conflict and resolution. They bring in two conflicts – one involving the difficulty of young people here not being able to afford to buy their first home and the other dealing with contracts – but both needed to have more thought put behind them. They also add to the emotional drama by tossing in an unnecessary subplot involving Wendy’s son that, while timely, really belongs in another movie. In the end, though, Cheng, Chow and the star-studded cast pull out all the stops and drop a slew of cameos on the screen that had my audience howling with laughter and appreciation.

Reportedly made for just over HK$11 million (about US$1.5 million), CHILLI LAUGH STORY is dirt cheap considering all the high-powered local talent that was involved. It will certainly to do much more than that at the box office as the film has already been picked up for distribution outside of the region.

CHILLI LAUGH STORY opens both in Hong Kong and around the region today (July 14th), and in other markets around the world starting this weekend. It’s definitely a must-see for Cantonese speakers and Hongkongers wherever they’re living these days.

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