Gambling Gods of Hong Kong By Peter Nepstad. God of Gamblers was the big box office winner of 1989. The film, directed by Wong Jing, broke box office records and landed squarely in the top spot of Hong Kong Cinema...
God of Gamblers was the big box office winner of 1989. The film, directed by Wong Jing, broke box office records and landed squarely in the top spot of Hong Kong Cinema.
The film spawned a myriad of spin-offs, rip-offs, and sequels. Its immense success allowed Wong Jing to start his own production company and once again confirmed the popularity of lead actor Chow Yun-Fat. However, God of Gamblers was not born in a vacuum. The roots of the film extend into a history of Cantonese gambling films. And, more than cards, craps, or roulette; God of Gamblers addressed the high stakes gamble of Britain ceding its island colony to China.
Gambling as a Moral Evil
In view of traditional Chinese ethics, gambling seems an unlikely occupation for a film’s protagonist. Only slightly better than illicit sex and drug use, gambling is often viewed as a vice and not a noble pursuit. In fact, Cantonese films of the ’50s and ’60s often depicted the gambler as someone to be pitied or despised. This risky obsession was shown as ultimately leading to financial ruin and the destruction of the family. Similar to the heavy-handed “drug scare” films of the American ’30s (Marijuana, Reefer Madness, etc.), the HK gambling films of this era were meant to instruct audiences. The inevitable moral of the story; there are no winners in games of chance.
These films were a reflection of the chronic gambling problem of HK residents. During the ’50s, immigration from Mainland China increased. This influx of refugees combined with embargoes placed on HK by Western countries resulted in a large, unsettled poor population and few opportunities for advancement. In the shantytowns of HK, gambling’s popularity soared. There seemed little other method of attaining wealth or success during these sad days.
Thus, filmmakers depicted gambling as an oppressive addiction. However, with Hong Kong’s economic turnaround in the ’60s, HK was experiencing a bull market by the ’70s. With this, gamblers began to appear in more upbeat films like Lee Hon Cheung’s gambling trilogy: Legend of Cheating (71), Cheating Panorama (72), and Cheat to Cheat (73). Yes, occasionally gamblers might win-by cheating like hell!
Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Michael Hui
Shedding the morality of their predecessor, the Hong Kong gambling films of the ’70s found their inspiration in George Roy Hill’s Academy Award-winning 1973 film, The Sting. This US film offered a new take on the addicted gambler in the role of Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford). A small time operator, Hooker quickly gambles any loot that he might score. Unlike the depressing cycle of addiction of early Hong Kong gambling films, however, Johnny is never depressed about his position-there’s always the next con.
Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) mentors young Johnny. Gondorff doesn’t “do the con” for money but, rather, for the game. He’s like the fisherman who throws back what he catches. By the end of the film, Johnny doesn’t bother with his part of the take. “I’ll just blow it,” he says, smiling, and emerges a hero. He’s faced up to the big boys and came out on top, his gambling addiction firmly intact.
The Sting introduced audiences to two types of gamblers: the small time con man and the sportsman. The Sting won Best Picture at the 1974 Academy Awards. It was also well received in Hong Kong, where not long afterwards, comedian Michael Hui would use it as inspiration to direct and star in his first film, Games Gamblers Play (74).
In the film, Michael Hui and Sam Hui play two con men who meet in prison and agree to work together cheating their way to riches. Unlike Gondorff of The Sting, Michael Hui’s attitude is far from sportsmanlike. He cons to win money, and nothing else. Meanwhile, Cantopop star Sam Hui plays an inexperienced con man, completely inept at cheating. But neither of these characters are reviled or shunned by society. Rather, they have supportive, loving families, in direct contrast to the earlier Chinese gambling films.
Games Gamblers Play wears its influences on its sleeve in the multitude of scenes that echo or directly parody The Sting. In The Sting when Gondorff replaces cards in his hand, his flawless planning prevents detection of his deception. Meanwhile, when Sam Hui slips a card into his hand, the winning card isn’t even from the same deck! This results in him getting a good thrashing.
Games Gamblers Play was Hong Kong’s number one film of the year (with The Sting right behind). It proved that audiences were ready to see gambling in a more lighthearted way. Filmmakers responded by flooding the market with a number of gambling/con man films. None of them managed to match the success of Hui’s film. Filmmakers didn’t appear to understand that the success of Games Gamblers Play was not from the gambling, but rather its stars. Michael Hui went on to direct and star in a series of hit comedies with his brothers throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Hong Kong would have to wait fifteen years before it saw its next successful gambling film.
Director of Gamblers
Wong Jing wrote and directed his first feature, Challenge of the Gamesters, in 1980. This film marked Jing’s first entry into a genre that would become his lifelong obsession. Movie theaters of the early ’80s most often played host to kung-fu comedies and hopping vampire films. While Challenge of the Gamesters did well at the box office, it didn’t have the popularity (or profitability) to revive the gambling film as a movement. For the rest of the decade, Wong Jing kept plugging away in the gambling genre with sporadic success. He managed to create a name for himself by delivering populist entertainment (with a gambling theme) such as Winner Takes All (82), Clumsy Gambler (87), and Casino Raiders (89).
His breakthrough success came when he varied the old formula. In the past, the gambler was usually depicted as a small time con playing against the big boys. That is to say, these films focused more on The Sting ’s Johnny Hooker character. But what if, instead, a film centered on the Henry Gondorff character? A cool, competent card shark who has already made it into the gambling world and, moreover, has made it into the top spot?
Gambling Film Hits the Jackpot
Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers (89) broke box office records and ended up as the number one movie for the year. It starred Chow Yun-Fat, which helped account for its phenomenal success. Chow had been a popular star throughout the eighties, becoming one of Asia’s biggest stars in 1986 when he played Mark in the John Woo film A Better Tomorrow. Youths from all over the territory began imitating Chow, wearing the same style of sunglasses and overcoat that he wore in Woo’s film. Already looming larger than life, Chow became the perfect choice to play Ko Chun: the God of Gamblers.
The film begins by establishing Ko Chun’s legendary status. We first see Ko Chun in a casino in San Francisco, where the owners recognize and fear him. Ko Chun then visits Japan where he goes head to head against the Japanese God of Gamblers and soundly defeats him. However, the Japanese gambler has another purpose in mind for playing against Ko Chun. He wishes to find the very best gamblers and pit them against Mr. Chan, a scoundrel who’s besmirched the Japanese gambler’s honor.
Ko Chun agrees to face this contest and heads to Hong Kong where we’re introduced to Little Knife (Andy Lau), his girlfriend Jane (Joey Wong), and his friend Big Mouth. Together, they are the worst group of cons ever. They dream of leaving the poor shack in which they live and moving into the big beautiful houses on the hill overlooking the city. Instead, as one con after another fails, they are verbally abused by the Indian man who lives in the mansion above them.
To teach their neighbor a lesson, Little Knife and Big Mouth decide to rig a tripwire on the hillside walkway. But it is not the Indian who springs the trapit’s Ko Chun, who has gone out walking in the neighborhood after a local poker game turned dangerous and he fled for his life. He trips over the wire and whacks his head on the way down.
Little Knife and the gang see what a mistake they made, and bring Ko Chun home. When he revives, however, he seems to have lost all of his memory, and acts like a complete idiot. The only thing he can think of is to ask for some chocolate, so they decide that “Chocolate” will be his name, for now. At first, they are unsure what to do with Chocolate. When they realize he has a talent for gambling, however, they quickly try to use him for running cons. The locals begin to refer to “Chocolate” as the “Retarded God of Gamblers.”
God of Gamblers is clearly inspired by the movie Rain Man, which was released the year before. One immediately recalls the casino scene in that film where Dustin Hoffman explains he is “counting cards.” In Rain Man Cruise attempts to run a scam using Hoffman, but is unsuccessful. In God of Gamblers, the scam is a success-for the most part.
Additionally, God of Gamblers builds off the gambling films of the ’70s. In The Sting, it is the master (Newman) teaching the small timer (Redford), and in Games Gamblers Play it is master Michael Hui teaching small timer Sam Hui. Meanwhile, in God of Gamblers the roles have reversed because of the amnesia. Here the student (Andy Lau) is puffed up with self-importance, not realizing he is teaching the teacher.
Meanwhile, all is not well in Ko Chun’s organization. Deciding that Ko Chun must be dead, his number two man-the treacherous Yee-writes his boss off and makes an unsuccessful play for his girl. Upon discovering that Ko Chun is alive, Yee sends men to eliminate him. Soon, another hard knock on the head restores Ko Chun’s memory. He reclaims his cool and his title as the God of Gamblers. Yet, Ko Chun seems to have lost his recent memory of Little Knife and Big Mouth. Or, has he?
Large and in charge, the God of Gamblers sets up a con of his own. The audience is made privy to some of what Ko Chun knows. The fun of the film’s climax comes in watching Ko Chun’s masterful con unfold against his opponents, proving once and for all that he is the true God of Gamblers.
Chow Yun-Fat is so charming in this film that it’s easy to see why it was such a hit. But he alone cannot completely account for the film’s success. At the very least, there must be some other reason that its profits beat the other movies that year that also starred Chow: the critical favorite All About Ah-Long, Tsui Hark’s A Better Tomorrow III, and John Woo’s The Killer.
The Stakes are High in Hong Kong
The new style of gambling hero was iconic for his time. In the ’50s and ’60s, the gambler reflected the status of poor immigrant families who had very little money to spend, and so championed frugality and thrift over finding the “quick win.” In the ’70s when Hong Kong’s economy was in the midst of its longest boom in history, the addicted gambler was often used for a laugh. Here big gambling losses did not necessarily mean doom for the loser or his family. Instead, the underdog could be championed for his innovative schemes to strike it rich. But the prosperous ’70s turned quickly into the anxious ’80s as tensions mounted over Hong Kong’s future.
Talks between Great Britain and China over the question of post-1997 Hong Kong began in 1982, without any input or participation from Hong Kong itself. In 1984, the signing of the Joint Declaration removed any doubt about Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Some Hong Kong reporters asked how Ms. Thatcher felt about signing over the lives of millions of free people to a communist government.
As the ’80s wore on, well-off residents were applying for emigration to Canada and Australia at the rate of a thousand per week. In 1988, China published its “Basic Rule of Law” for post-1997 Hong Kong-Amnesty International denounced it for not upholding human rights. Citizens of Hong Kong were having a hard time trusting that China would allow them to keep their institutions and freedoms intact. The Tienanmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989 shoved a wedge further into this credibility gap.
Six months later, God of Gamblers was released. Ko Chun was the object of everyone’s secret desire. It was not just a simple quest for money and the good life. It was the way that the God of Gamblers was able to use his status to transcend national boundaries. He was free of any problems that might occur in Hong Kong post-1997.
While never explicitly stated, the audience assumes that Ko Chun comes from Hong Kong. However, he has shed his national identity to become a “citizen of the world.” He is easily able to travel from the USA, Japan, and Hong Kong. The climax of the film takes place on a boat in international waters: a symbolic gesture of the freewheeling gambler’s lack of ties to any particular nation.
Apart from Ko Chun, everyone else in God of Gamblers seems trapped in their own national identities. Little Knife and his gang are firmly citizens of Hong Kong, which native audience members can easily identify with. They are the “everyman” characters that long to become gods.
Then there is the Indian man who lives above them. Ko Chun begins a dialogue with him about ethnicity and identity. Ko Chun greets him speaking Hindi, but the man rebukes him, saying that he has lived in Hong Kong all his life and doesn’t speak his native language. Hong Kong traps him too, though his fate is far more tragic. Constantly subjected to racial prejudices, he doesn’t fit in with modern Hong Kong nor does he have another country he can call home. Ko Chun suggests that the man “go back to India.” Racist? Yes, probably. On the other hand, it could be advice given by a man who has given up his nationality in order to travel more freely and escape local troubles.
Ko Chun also becomes fascinated with his bodyguard, Dragon, and his Vietnamese nationality. When Dragon defeats a number of gangsters on the subway, Ko Chun asks him why he fought them; after all, they’re all Vietnamese like he is. Dragon’s curt response is “They’re North Vietnamese.” Thus Dragon shows that he’s willing to fight against his brother Vietnamese because they are from the North, and therefore Communist. This underscores the resistance of ethnic Chinese living in Hong Kong willing to resist the advances of their Communist brethren.
Gambling acts as a metaphor of Hong Kong’s relationship with China. As 1997 rapidly approached, the only option open to most citizens was to take a chance with China. This outlook differed from the style of a few years before when the anxiety of China’s takeover bubbled over into violent, vengeful films like A Better Tomorrow. Initially, thinking about fighting the inevitable future may be cathartic. Eventually, however, it is pointless and counterproductive. The upbeat ending to God of Gamblers leaves room for hope and the audience leaves feeling a weight lifted off their shoulders, for a time.
Upping the Ante: All for the Winner
The combination of action, comedy, romance, and gambling was such a phenomenal success that it was only a matter of time before someone tried to copy the formula. The person who did was writer/director Jeff Lau with All for the Winner. The film unbelievably trumped God of Gamblers, topping box office records for 1990. More remarkable was its success came without the guaranteed star power of Chow Yun-Fat. Instead, our new gambling hero was a popular comedian, Stephen Chiau. All for the Winner launched his film career, and he’s never looked back. Since then he’s become the most successful Hong Kong star with only Jackie Chan as a possible contender to the title.
Stephen Chiau plays Sing-Chi, a Chinese mainlander immigrating to Hong Kong to find work and stay with his Uncle Tat (Ng Man-Tat), a gambling addict in the Michael Hui tradition. Although Uncle Tat loses all his money, he is loved and able to keep strong friendships. When Sing-Chi arrives in Hong Kong, he is a country bumpkin with little knowledge of how even the simplest mechanical device functions. However, Uncle Tat soon discovers his nephew has fantastic powers.
Sing-Chi can see through boxes, walls, and occasionally, clothes. He can focus on a card and make it change into another card. He can predict horseracing results. Of course, Uncle Tat cannot believe his good fortune. Soon he’s carting Sing-Chi around town in an attempt to win big. Even with magical powers, though, they somehow manage to blow almost every opportunity.
After tricking a room full of people out of their winnings, the duo are soon embroiled in a back alley brawl. Here, a mysterious woman named Yu-Mong (Cheung Man), who is herself on the run, rescues Sing-Chi. Sing-Chi attempts to help her, but is ineffectual in combat. Her boyfriend (Corey Yuen) eventually rescues her instead. As Yu Mong leaves, Sing-Chi catches site of her armpit mole, and falls in love. No, really. Her armpit mole.
Finally, the gambling antics of the two men attract the attention of two of the biggest gamblers, Mr. Hung and Mr. Chung, who each proposition them to play for them in the World Gambling Tournament. Uncle Tat explains to Sing-Chi that he must have the proper image to be a gambler, so he gets a videotape of God of Gamblers and puts it in, studying Chow Yun-Fat’s style. Even after studying the tape, however, Sing-Chi cannot bring himself to use hair gel.
A complication arises in that Sing-Chi falls so far in love with Yu Mong that his magic no longer functions unless she is near. When she is not present at the final round of the World Gambling Competition, all bets are off and he must survive on his wits alone. In a surprising change from the normal con man film, our hero is out of cons at the end of the film. As he is not truly skilled in gambling, he must rely on luck alone.
All for the Winner positions the Hong Kong/China relations in a different, more positive light than God of Gamblers. Whereas God of Gamblers can be seen as a yearning for freedom of movement and escape from Hong Kong’s impending Communist takeover, All for the Winner reminds us that although the governments may be different, people can cooperate.
In All for the Winner, Ng Man-Tat represents the Hong Kong “little man,” who works hard, but not legitimately, rather spending all his energies on get-rich-quick schemes. As a mainlander, Stephen Chiau is completely unprepared for the modernity of Hong Kong. But he also possesses an inner strength and a super-power, under-appreciated in his native land (he says he worked at an airport until they bought an X-ray machine and he was out of a job). This strength allows him to flourish in Hong Kong. Both character types strike a deep chord among Hong Kong citizens-many of whom either have immigrated in their lifetime or have had to scramble to make a buck. All for the Winner hypothesizes that one does not need to strip oneself of nationality in order to survive in post 1997 Hong Kong. Rather, the different nationalities can make positive steps toward the future as long as they work together.
In many ways, All for the Winner comes out as a superior film to God of Gamblers, having more laughs, more action, and more drama. The comedy duo of Stephen Chiau and Ng Man-Tat are absolute dynamite. Wong Jing, never one to miss out on the action, immediately snapped them up to star in his next film, God of Gamblers 2.
Cashing In: Sequels and Knock-Offs
God of Gamblers 2 (90) picks up where both God of Gamblers and All for the Winner leaves off. How economical. Two sequels for the price of one!
Little Knife (Andy Lau) has been studying under Ko Chun for a while and is now known as the “Knight of Gamblers.” Ko Chun, however, has left Hong Kong and currently resides in Brazil. Meanwhile, Sing-Chi (Stephen Chiau) and Uncle Tat (Ng Man-Tat) decide that they should try to meet Ko Chun to become his students. When they try to get an audience, they find only Little Knife in residence, but still figure he can eventually introduce them to Ko Chun.
Little Knife and Sing-Chi match wits in several amusing scenes, before they are interrupted by a group of goons led by Hussein (Takeshi Kaneshiro), son-in-law of the villainous Mr. Chan from the original God of Gamblers. Hussein pretends to be the real student of the God of Gamblers, intent on destroying Ko Chun’s credibility. Hussein kidnaps Dragon (Charles Heung) and Uncle Tat to keep our heroes in check, but despite the odds, they go up against Hussein and gamble to the bitter end.
In God of Gamblers 2, Little Knife has achieved some of the luxury he was so desperately seeking. He now lives in the home of the Indian man he despised from the earlier film. Meanwhile, the Indian man has fallen on hard times and lives in the old shack that Little Knife used to own. We learn later that the Indian man is actually from Kuwait and is ashamed that he didn’t leave Hong Kong to defend his country in the Gulf War.
The Indian man decides to pack his bags and return to his ancestral home, making Ko Chun’s “Go back to India” remark in God of Gamblers all the more prescient. Rather than being a racist stereotype, the Kuwaiti becomes someone who can chastise Little Knife and Sing-chi in their moment of indecision. “The Chinese are cowards,” he tells them. “I will go home a fight for my country. I am not afraid.” His pep talk is all Little Knife and Sing-chi need to convince them that they, too, can overcome their enemy (not coincidentally sharing the name Hussein).
This introduces a new metaphor for the 1997 takeover: Iraq invading Kuwait. Like China and Hong Kong, these two Middle Eastern countries were once part of the same empire. Also, these countries were made separate largely through the power of Great Britain. The metaphor here is not nearly as powerful as in God of Gamblers, and is easily dismissed.
God of Gamblers 2 came out in the same year as All for the Winner (projects move hot and heavy in HK), and followed on the heels of Jeff Lau’s film at the box office. It followed the basic rule of sequels providing more action, more comedy, more gambling, and more stars. Stephen Chiau’s character adds a number of new magic powers to his repertoire, while Hussein hires himself a mainlander with magic powers to combat him.
The increased emphasis on the magic would continue with God of Gamblers 3: Back to Shanghai (1991), wherein a group of super-powered mainlanders attacks Sing-Chi and Uncle Tat. These supernatural antagonists throw fireballs, control objects telekinetically, and even send Sing Chi back in time to 1930s Shanghai. Andy Lau was not on board for this sequel, the wildest of the series.
With the success of All for the Winner, the God of Gamblers movies weren’t the only gambling films being made. Suddenly, everyone jumped into the fray. The years 1990 to 1992 saw the release of no less than fourteen gambling films. Movies such as Top Bet (91) and Queen of Gamble (91) used some of the same characters, creating a kind of shared gambling universe between all of the films. Others, such as Casino Tycoon I and II (92), took star Andy Lau in a more serious direction with the gambling concept. Still others attempted to combine the flagging ghost genre with the now hot gambling genre. Sifu and hopping vampire fighter Lam Ching-Ying starred in Money Maker (91), Sammo Hung in Gambling Ghost (91), and Wu Ma in Gambling Soul (92). All three films featured characters who come back from the dead and gamble.
The Gambling Soul is particularly interesting in that Wu Ma plays a character who harks back to the very beginning of the genre; a rather sad, pathetic man whose addiction leads to his death. But now in the ’90s, even though he fails, his spirit can come back and make things right. By the end of 1992, it became clear that people were tiring of the gambling genre again. In 1993, there was a suspicious absence of gambling films. Yet, Wong Jing knew that people would come back to the genre if he gave them what they wanted: Chow Yun-Fat.
After creating the God of Gamblers character, Chow didn’t appear in another gambling movie. His presence lingers through the sequels and rip-offs. In All for the Winner, Stephen Chiau watches a videotape of him. In God of Gamblers 2, Hussein has a golden bust sculpted of him. And, in God of Gamblers 3: Back to Shanghai, Stephen Chiau has painted his portrait. When Chow Yun-Fat finally came back it was in the appropriately titled The God of Gamblers’ Return (94).
The God of Gamblers’ Return
When The God of Gamblers’ Return opens, Ko Chun (Chow Yun-Fat) is living in Paris happily married to a woman (Cheung Man) who is the spitting image of his deceased girlfriend (due in part that she’s played by the same actress). When his old bodyguard, Dragon (Charles Heung), comes to call, they talk about old times.
Dragon has come to warn Ko Chun that Mr. Chan is getting out of prison, and he isn’t very happy about how he was treated in God of Gamblers. He’s teamed up with a Taiwanese villain named Chau Siu-Chee, a man so cruel he throws cats out of moving vehicles while still holding onto their leashes! He’s a bad dude.
Soon, Chau Siu-Chee and his men arrive at Ko Chun’s Parisian villa while the God of Gamblers is out. The group does some major renovating. During the destruction, Ko Chun’s gal is mortally injured. As Ko Chun is about to scoop out a great big serving of revenge, his dying wife makes him swear not to gamble for one full year. He agrees.
Nearly a year passes. Here the story picks up with Ko Chun travelling through China. What follows is a series of incidents that play like a loose-fitting bunch of sketches and action sequences that document Ko Chun’s travels through China, to Taiwan, and eventually to the gambling table of Chau Siu-Chee. Along the way, he picks up a number of drifters, each lost or alone in their own way. In the end, we discover that Ko Chun has been planning an elaborate con ever since that day, one year ago, that his wife died. Watching the con unfold is the most enjoyable part of an otherwise disjointed film and leaves the viewer satisfied in the end.
God of Gamblers’ Return doesn’t paint a very reassuring picture of Hong Kong’s potential political future. First we discover the unsettling fact that emigration alone cannot resolve all of one’s problems. One may no longer live in Hong Kong, but Hong Kong may still come to you. Unable to escape from his fate, Ko Chun travels to China. The police in China are a perfect picture of complete chaos and corruption. In Taiwan, order is still preserved, but corruption runs rampant there as well.
God of Gamblers’ Return was one of the last films Chow Yun-Fat made in the territory before moving on to Hollywood. He says of that period, “I was ready for a change.” He was not too happy with the state of the Hong Kong film industry at the time. While this was not Chow Yun-Fat’s best performance, it was by no means his worst, either. A particularly enjoyable scene occurs near the end when Ko Chun dons a leather jacket and pretends to be Little Knife (now called Dagger Chan).
With Chow Yun-Fat finally returning to the role of the God of Gamblers, audiences were satisfied. But the film was not so great that they craved more. Consequently, after God of Gamblers’ Return, it seemed the gambling genre lost its momentum. But Wong Jing, now head of his own production company was making over five films a year and not out of ideas, yet. He had two more gambling films up his sleeve before the 1997 Handover took place.
If themes of national identity were touched on briefly in God of Gamblers’ Return, they were spoofed in Wong Jing’s next film, The Saint of Gamblers (95). The film picks up somewhere in the middle of God of Gamblers 3, when Sing-Chi has disappeared into the past. Uncle Tat (Ng Man-Tat) is asked to find another gambler from the mainland. He heads there and picks out a man painfully named God Bless You (Eric Kot). Apparently, someone thought that name was a hoot, but the joke just doesn’t stretch into an entire film.
God Bless You gambles at the International Gambling Tournament, which has representatives from all over the world, making a mockery of the more sophisticated approach to ethnicity and nationality seen in earlier films. As one painful example, the representative from Africa is a black man dressed like Michael Jackson, sporting one sequined glove. While Eric Kot, is a popular Hong Kong comedian, he is not comparable to Stephen Chiau. With such a weak leading character, The Saint of Gamblers dies a grisly death.
Released the following year, God of Gamblers 3: The Early Years(96)† was the opposite of The Saint of Gamblers. In other words, it was good! By sweeping away the old cast and bringing in hot new stars as “youthful” incarnations of the classic heroes, God of Gamblers 3: The Early Years tells the compelling story of Ko Chun’s coming of age. The gambling scenes are stunning, featuring the charismatic Leon Lai as the young Ko Chun. The film is a perfect capstone to the God of Gamblers series. The most fun comes when we discover where Ko Chun got his trademark jade ring, chocolate habit, and use of hair gel.
God of Gamblers 3: The Early Years is perfect escapist entertainment. With the Hong Kong Handover clock ticking down, the need to comment on the event in film had abated in many filmmakers. Instead, audiences wished to forget their immediate concerns and go on with life. Movies turned back the clock to earlier times, allowing audiences to do just that.
Out with the Old, In with the New
The Handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China occurred without major incident. So far, life in Hong Kong has not changed drastically. Suffering in the years immediately before and after the Handover, the movie industry has begun to pick up again. This is due in part to a stabilization of the Hong Kong economy, and an increased international involvement in moviemaking. In fact, the Hong Kong film industry has positioned itself as the hub of a Pan-Asian film industry, hiring actors from Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea, making co-productions, and shooting on location all along the Pacific Rim. So paradoxically, the paradigm of Hong Kong as doomed-crushed by a totalitarian Chinese boot-has transformed into Hong Kong, international market economy. The image of the God of Gamblers, unfettered by nationalism and a member of the world community, has been transposed onto Hong Kong itself.
Wong Jing’s latest gambling trilogy upholds the spirit of this new internationalism. Conman (98), Conmen in Vegas (99), and Conman in Tokyo (00), star gambling genre perennial Andy Lau as King, a self-professed “sharper.” He’s a con man, not a gambler, using high tech apparatuses and a few partners to scam players at card games.
Gone are the days when gamblers had magic powers to transform cards. Those tales seem more like the tales of Arthurian knights, now. Instead, King cheats the old-fashioned way. He picks up a young con man, Skinny Dragon (Nick Cheung), and shows him the ropes. When the villain, Handsome (Waise Lee), takes King’s girlfriend hostage, King is forced to gamble against Handsome’s boss, Macau Mon, as part of a plot engineered by Handsome to kill Macau Mon. King has no choice but to agree.
The climax takes place around a high-stakes gambling table. In addition to playing cards, the gamblers watch the World Cup game, Brazil versus France, on big-screen TVs. Macau Mon had an inside tip that France will win despite Brazil being highly favored due to Mafia involvement.
With hope that they’re immune to Triad tampering, world football games garner a great number of bets. Match fixing has been the scourge of Asian soccer for a good number of years. In one season, Malaysian football authorities estimated that ninety percent of games had players who were bribed to play either well or poorly. Sometimes the syndicates may even sabotage a game by causing the stadium lights to fail, stopping the event when the score is favorable.
It is no surprise then that the gamblers in Conman have bets on World Cup football instead of Asian football. However, not even these games are immune from tampering by other international syndicates such as the Mafia. Yet, King stages an elaborate con to dupe his fellow players. His men cut into the match’s satellite signal and broadcast a faux game whose final score is in his favor.
With Conman, Wong Jing returns to basics. The film is an update and remake of The Sting with a mock soccer tournament instead of a fake horse race. The emphasis of the film has moved away from gambling, landing squarely on the con.
In Conmen in Vegas, gambling takes a back seat again to an elaborate con to catch a crook who has stolen a billion dollars and fled Hong Kong. The latest installment in the series, Conman in Tokyo, hit theaters in mid-2000.
Closely tied to economic and political status, the gambling genre has grown and changed along with Hong Kong. In the fifties and sixties, gambling was considered an addiction in need of treatment. In the seventies, during an economic upswing, the success of The Sting created the gambler as small-time con man and/or sportsman. Of these two character types, one appeals as an “everyman” and the other as an “ideal man.” These characters soon began to play out as representational roles in the eighties and early nineties as anxiety about the 1997 Handover reached its summit. The latter half of the nineties saw a general drop in the production of films, leaving Wong Jing as the only producer/director still making films in the gambling genre. As the century draws to a close, the gambling genre is still viable and marketable. Yet, with a social climate still in flux, it’s difficult to predict the direction Hong Kong gambling films will take in the years to come. Suffice to say that they will continue to delight Hong Kong audiences for years to come!
†Wait, wasn’t there already a God of Gamblers 3? Below is a list of the movies in the God of Gamblers series and their titles in English, Mandarin, and Literal translation:
God of Gamblers (Du Shen / Gambling God)
God of Gamblers 2 (Du Xia / Knight of Gamblers)
God of Gamblers 3: Back to Shanghai (Du Xia II: Zhi Shang Hai Tan Du Sheng / Knight of Gamblers II: Shanghai Beach Gambling Saint)
God of Gamblers’ Return (Du Shen Xu Ji / Gambling God Sequel)
God of Gamblers 3: The Early Stage (Du Shen 3: Zhi Shao Nian Du Shen / God of Gamblers 3: Young God of Gamblers)
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