The extreme weather in Hot Summer Days doesn’t just swelter, it’s powerful enough to melt buildings, wilt skyscrapers, and cause mass emotional chaos. In the film’s breakneck opening salvo, directors Tony Chan and Wing Shya put an exclamation point on this blunt elemental connection between physical and emotional heat, crosscutting between multiple characters throughout Hong Kong and Beijing in a sweaty flurry of shaky-cam aesthetics. Occupations for the unhappy souls are established (pianist, driver, sushi chef, etc.), desires are aptly repressed (yearning, success, expression), and the tables are set for interlocking stories that will invariably cross-pollinate every worthy character with their necessary thematic cocktail.
Each rising sun ignites a surge of manic hysteria that weaves these tormented, forlorn characters through a clumsy plot riddled with cliché and predictability. The film revels in familiar romantic entanglements, not in the haphazardly insulting way its American cousin Valentine’s Day does, but through a consistent need to express irreverence with inane story shifts and character traits. Hot Summer Days builds its entire narrative around challenges, bets, and dares of both the physical and emotional kind, but these arrangements give nothing back in the form of insight or expression. Instead, embarrassingly bad CGI effects define the symbols and metaphors divulging surface level information exactly on cue, making the conflict of the diverse couplings mere foregone conclusions of unrequited love.
Take, for example, the main couple, made up of a charming failed pianist who begins a You’ve Got Mail-style relationship with a taxi driver after an errant text message connects them. Their narrative duality is so forced and quickly rendered (they both pass out of heat stroke simultaneously on separate sides of the city) that their fleeting and fluffy relationship has no lasting value. Chan and Shya flood the frame with quirky nuance so the root of each relationship always favors simplistic expectation over narrative surprise making them just more carbon-copy couples fated for flowery denouements.
Hot Summer Days throws every expected plot device of melodrama and romantic comedy into an already crowded field of schmaltz. Terminally ill diseases, dead spouses, sacrificial boyfriends, recipes written on postcards, sudden onset blindness—the list goes on and on. But the filmmakers and the performers entirely commit to the debauchery, and at times the film transcends its creaky genre roots and borders on the sincere. In one story between a poor girl and the young boy who spends 100 days in the sun outside her factory, the simplicity of his devotion and loyalty takes on a stirring, innocent quality, most notably when the boy welds on a homemade Mercedes logo onto his bike to compete with a rich adversary. It’s the one moment where genuine intent matches the desired expression of emotion, a genuine fly in the film’s tacky narrative ointment.
Not surprisingly, Hot Summer Days ties up every bow, links the necessary characters and moods, and pushes past the bristling sweat and heat to find harmonic balance between all the different romantic scenarios, lame ironies be damned (one couple is named Wasabi and Soy Sauce). But if you’re going to find love in this overheated world of convoluted romance, one must come full circle, if not by choice then by cinematic sledgehammer. Any characters with shades of dimension are forced to submit to this grueling courtship and enjoy the heat.