Sequels, Prequels, Send-ups and Spin-offs: Director Wong Jing finds Chow Yun Fat a new tuxedo amongst his usual box of tricks.
The recent release of From Vegas to Macau harks back to Hong Kong’s gambling fad of the early 1990s. Wong Jing, director of the original God of Gamblers series, offers up a super-silly pastiche of recycled gags that should appeal to fans of classic Hong Kong gambling films. Unfortunately, this time Chow Yun Fat does not play suave gamesman Ko Chun from the original series, and the gambling sequences have been cut short in an attempt to appeal to a Mainland audience.
At the heart of films in this genre is usually a buffoonish small-time scam artist or petty crook. From Vegas to Macau starts by introducing us to Benz (Benz Hui), his son Cool (Nicolas Tse) and nephew Ngau-Ngau (Chapman To). Together they play this role, extorting small time gangsters in Hong Kong to pay for Benz’s wife’s cancer treatment. Catering to China’s lack of a rating system, this sort of ethical validation for each character’s foibles is commonplace.
Upon invitation, the three men travel to Macau to visit Benz’s old friend “Magic Fingers” Ken (Chow-Yun-Fat). Both Cool and Ngau-Ngau fall for Ken’s daughter Rainbow (Kimmy Tong). Ngau-Ngau, played by Chapman To, is a klutzy and sex-obsessed loser straight out of a Cat Three film. Chapman To is the cannon for most of Wong Jing’s goofy gags and he steals the show early on. Cool is the romantic lead and Nicolas Tse plays it very, uh… cool. So cool, in fact, that one could understandably assume he had been lobotomized. Aside from changing cardigan frequently, and the occasional kung fu bout, he doesn’t bring much emotion to the table.
Where in the past Chow-Yun-Fat may have played a merciless card shark with a penchant for material wealth, this time –- again catering to the film’s Mainland target audience — he plays a family man and security consultant. The success of the earlier Hong Kong gambling films was very much to do with money and wealth being seen as a means to escape the dreariness of daily life, not to save the world. The characters suffer amidst these additional constraints.
Hot-blooded detective Luo Xin (Jing Tian) enlists the help of Ken to take down our villain Mr. Ko (Gao Hu) and his large international crime syndicate. The thirty-plus year age difference is not enough to dissuade Luo Xin from having romantic feelings for Ken. At one point she is accidentally injected with truth-serum (actually!) and confesses this to him.
(Usually I’d take issue with this, but hey, injected with truth-serum and seated next to Chow Yun Fat I’d probably start gushing the same way.)
I would have thought that nine main characters was enough for a 96 minute film, but Wong Jing keeps stacking them up in his classic nonsensical style; the more confused you get, the more the humour seems to work.
The God Of Gamblers franchise represents some of Hong Kong cinema’s most distinctive qualities: its ability to recycle, pastiche and parody ideas and its ability to run just about any fad into the ground. Just like the 2010s saw a cycle of films about the late Ip Man, the early 1990s saw a cycle of films about gambling.
First of all the God of Gamblers series had its own bevy of sequels, prequels and send-ups. Then other spin-off series rapidly emerged, each one trying to out-do the next: All for the Winner, The Gambling Ghost, All for the Gambler, The Mighty Gambler, The Gambling Saint 2, the list goes on… and on.
The original God of Gamblers (1989) saw Chow Yun Fat play Ko Chun, a clairvoyant card shark that never loses at a game of cards, dice or mahjong. Following a head injury, he suffers a bout of Hollywood-style amnesia leaving him with the personality of a child, although all of his gambling abilities remain intact. Lost and confused, Ko Chun is taken in by loveable scam artist Dagger (Andy Lau). Upon discovering Ko Chun’s gambling ability, Dagger attempts to exploit Ko Chun’s skills and make himself rich. Not surprisingly they upset a few gangsters along the way and you can imagine the sort of action-comedy that ensues.
Following the success of Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers, Corey Yeun and Jeff Lau directed a parody, All for the Winner (1990). The film stars Stephen Chow as Sing, a Chinese country bumpkin with X-ray vision and the ability to change cards by concentrating on them. Sing’s untrustworthy uncle Greedy (Ng Man-Tat) attempts to exploit Sing’s gambling abilities and make himself rich — sound familiar? He dresses Sing in a suit, and makes him watch God of Gamblers on video in preparation. Stephen Chow’s impersonation of Chow Yun Fat walking in slow-motion is hysterical; it’s a classic example of his brand of “mo lei tau” humour.
Wong Jing immediately paid his plagiarists back by ripping off All for the Winner for his own sequel, God of Gamblers II (1990). Not only does he use the same degree of crazy comedy, but he even takes the two main characters from All for the Winner, Sing and his uncle Greedy — played by the same actors — and pits them off against characters from the original film. If you think this degree of intertextuality between the films is a bit intense, that’s really only the beginning. There are actors, characters, and jokes that run between each of them.
This might all seem overwhelming for the uninitiated, but don’t be put off. It’s not really necessary to understand all of the genre’s cross-pollination. The success of the genre relies on the fact that it is a simple formula that is easily recycled. It’s like the way you can get Liam Neeson, take his identity or his daughter, and you’re guaranteed a hit. Same thing. Give Chow Yun Fat a tux and a deck of cards (or two guns) and it just works. Another feature of this particular genre is that there’s always a little bit of something for everybody: action, comedy, romance, you name it. In that respect this film certainly delivers. Between what seems to be six different storylines we run the gamut of emotions and are treated to some moderately impressive kung-fu sequences, some romance in a sports car, and an abundance of pie-in-the-face gags.
All of the Hong Kong gambling films centralize around trickery, and this one is no different. I think I counted three times that people pulled off a skin mask — the Scooby-Doo twist. There’s the usual array of booby traps, X-ray vision, lie detectors, truth serum, and now with the advancement of technology even cameras implanted in fingernails. Traditionally, the rapid recycling of ideas in these films has seen each one competitively attempt to out-do its predecessor by being more outrageous and more ridiculous; From Vegas to Macau is no different.
Despite what local posters might suggest — Chow Yun Fat beneath the heading ‘The God of Gamblers is Back!’ — this is not a sequel to the original God Of Gamblers series. It’s an original storyline, with Chow Yun Fat playing a new character.
Another misconception that one could easily take from the local posters is that the film takes place in Las Vegas, at least in part. Well, that’s what I took from the title From Vegas to Macau, anyway. The flashy skyline cutaways in the trailer also elude to a plot line of high-stakes international espionage.
(If high-stakes international espionage and infrared trip wires is what you’re after make sure you’ve seen South Korean caper film The Thieves, from 2012.)
Despite this being a ‘gambling’ film, in a departure from the others I’ve mentioned there are no extended gambling sequences. This is by far the biggest burden placed upon Wong Jing in catering to China’s lack of a rating system. Understandably, some of the older films in the genre can alienate an audience that don’t know or care for the rules of a particular card game, and some critics have favored the absence of any extended gambling sequence. For me, the spellbinding camera work during gambling sequences in the original films is integral.
It’s no secret that the Chinese film industry is growing rapidly, and many of Hong Kong’s classic directors are getting another chance to work with bigger budgets thanks to the mainland Chinese market. Let’s just hope this sort of censorship doesn’t get in the way of too many films. Johnnie To’s Drug War last year, though it was an excellent film, was also definitely guilty of peddling China’s political agenda.
It has been a good start to the year for Australian fans of Hong Kong cinema. From Vegas to Macau recently screened at selected Village Cinemas, and Cinema Nova. At the same time, Hoyts were screening The Monkey King. The Melbourne Cinematheque kicked off their season with King Hu’s epic A Touch Of Zen, and The National Film and Sound Archive doubled down by screening three of King Hu’s films, a couple from restored prints. Things will likely slow down, so cash in while you still can.