God of Gamblers
Hong Kong 1989
Directed by Wong Jing.

Chow Yun-Fat redefines cool and consumes copious amounts of chocolate in the undisputed champion of gambling films.

Chow Yun-Fat IS the God of Gamblers in this hugely successful and entertaining movie that rejuvenated the old Gambling genre, solidified Chow's reputation as the top actor in Hong Kong, and helped build Wong Jing's movie empire.

This film is important in another way, too, for western audiences. This film is what I can only describe as a 'transitional' film -- one that pulls brave new viewers of Hong Kong cinema deeper into its madness. I've seen it happen countless times before. Here's how it works. At first, someone will be shown a John Woo film (these days, of course, you can see a John Woo film just by renting it a Blockbuster). They say, "Holy Shit!" This is unbelievable! Maybe they watch The Killer, maybe Hard Boiled, then before you know it, A Better Tommorrow. The new fan (because they ARE a fan, now) realizes two things: (1) Boy, John Woo is good, and (2) Chow Yun-Fat is a God! The new fan then has two options: exploring the films of John Woo, which does not disappoint, especially if they find Bullet in the Head, or digging up some non-Woo Chow Yun-Fat. And so they come across God of Gamblers. Looks like an action film, right?

But it's not much action. Not compared to a Woo film, anyway. And Chow runs around acting like a retard for most of the picture. What's going on? It's...comedy! And action...and I don't know what else...but the gambling scenes are so cool! And hey, my girlfriend actually sat through it and said she liked it! And so begins a new Hong Kong movie fan's tentative exploration on beyond Woo.

God of Gamblers is at its core the simple and oft-told story of gambler prepares for big match, gambler completely loses memory, gambler helps small time conmen, small time conmen borrow large sums of money,...wait a minute, this is fairly complicated, isn't it.

The film opens with Ko Chun (Chow Yun-Fat) dealing a sound trouncing to one of the best Japanese gamblers. But just when you think samurai swords are going to start flashing, it turns out the Japanese gambler wants Ko Chun to help him. He has to play against a powerful gambler, Mr. Chan, but realizes that he is not good enough to do so himself. He wants Ko Chun to play Mr. Chan in his place. Just to emphasize the point, he whips out a knife and attempts to kill himself because he has lost face, and also because he hadn't done anything stereotypically Japanese yet and the scriptwriters were getting impatient. I mean, his assistant at least had the giant Yakuza Dragon tattoo plastered across her back (a small cameo by Michiko Nishikawa), what did he have? Nothing. Now Ko Chun, with the help of a hired Vietnamese hitman named Dragon (Charles Heung), must play against Mr. Chan on his gambling boat. Or at least that's where the movie seemed to be heading when suddenly Ko Chun takes a nasty tumble and loses his memory.

There are also these three other characters in the movie -- Knife (Andy Lau), his girlfriend (Joey Wong), and Big Mouth. Knife and Big Mouth are about the worst con artists ever. I couldn't help but think if Knife's pants weren't so tight maybe he could think better. They are the lowest rung in the socio-econonomic ladder, and just to emphasize the point, they are harassed by a wealthy Indian man who owns a beautiful house on the hill overlooking the poor shack they call home. Knife dreams with his girlfriend of one day owning the home, but in the short term he and Big Mouth rig a railing on the hill to collapse when the Indian man leans on it to teach him a lesson. It is this that Ko Chun ends up falling into. He hits his head pretty hard, then when Knife and his girlfriend are helping him they hit his head a few more times. When he wakes up, he acts like a complete retard. He can't even remember his own name, he just huddles in bed with Grandma. They decide to name him 'Chocolate,' since that's the first thing he asks for when he wakes up.

It's not long before the trio are using Chocolate to win at gambling games...he's a natural. In fact, it seems as though he has magical powers. We SEE he has one card in his hand, but then when he turns it over, it's another card. One time, to test him, Knife takes out of the deck the exact cards Ko Chun needs, and passes them to Big Mouth to hold on to. Ko Chun flips over his hand, and we see he has the right card. We look at the cards in Big Mouth's hand, and see that his have changed! Well, no WONDER he's the God of Gambling. If I had the magical ability to change cards, I'd make a lot of money, too. This magical aspect of his gambling prowess is downplayed in this movie, and emphasized so strongly in the spin-offs that I had almost forgotten about it. I thought, 'Chow is cooler because he can win at gambling without using special powers.' Oops. Guess not. Some people might call this 'cheating,' but I guess in Hong Kong it's considered 'really good gambling.' They take him out gambling so much that he becomes known as 'The Retarded God of Gamblers,' and had this been the title of the film, too, I'd bet a lot fewer people would have seen it. It's all good, wacky fun, with Chow playing the clown and pounding chocolate like there's no tomorrow.

In the meantime, Ko Chun's number two man, Yee, has written his boss off and is ready to be crowned number one. He admits to Ko Chun's girlfriend that he has always hated Ko Chun, and always desired her. He attempts to rape her, she resists, so he tosses her out of the second floor window, killing her. Not to be so easily deterred, he pops down stairs and rapes her broken, lifeless corpse. What the hell!?! What ever happened to this being a light comedy!?

It certainly takes some getting used to, but the bad guys in Hong Kong movies are often very, definitely, emphatically bad. You can forget about those bad guys who use elaborately slow killing devices and say lots of bad one-liners, like in Hollywood. Instead, they tend to do something very, cruelly, evil. It makes it a lot clearer who you're supposed to root for, at any rate. What is it with Wong Jing, anyway? Anyway, if you think a bad guy can't top that act, then you haven't seen God of Gamblers Returns yet.

At last, we have a villain, and some revenge to go get. But let's not forget Mr. Chan & his gambling boat, either. Conveniently, Mr. Chan and Yee decide to join forces against the God of Gamblers, thus putting all the bad guys together in a tidy package. Then it only remains for Ko Chun to stay alive long enough to get his memory back and show everyone why he is called the 'God of Gamblers.' NOT the 'Retarded God of Gamblers.' I bet that must have bothered him when he frequented those places again. 'Quit calling me that!'

After watching the film, I asked myself, 'what sort of person is this God of Gamblers? Why does everyone respect him so?' One thing that makes him stand out from the other characters in the film is his nationality. He has none. As he says, "Gamblers belong to the International Community." He seems to represent an ideal detachment from national politics. He is the goal that our three poor heroes from Hong Kong are desperate to reach -- to have enough wealth, and a visa, to travel wherever you wish, whenever you wish. Implicit in this goal is the desire to leave Hong Kong before the handover. While Ko Chun is somehow above ethnicity, all the other characters in the film, whether they are Vietnamese, Japanese, or Chinese, have theirs emphasized. When confronted by or working with these others, Ko Chun seems fascinated by the idea of their ethnicity. He asks Dragon, who at one point must defend Ko Chun against three assassins, why he is fighting the assailants -- after all, they are Vietnamese, too. Dragon perhaps sidesteps the question by commenting, "They're North Vietnamese." And then there's the case of the Indian man whom Ko Chun runs into in Hong Kong. "Go back to India," he tells him, sounding like a racial bigot. But the conversation as a whole is complicated. Ko Chun first speaks Hindi to him, which the Indian man doesn't understand. He proudly explains he has lived in Hong Kong almost all his life, at which point Ko Chun tells him to go back to India. Maybe he is saying that the Indian man should understand his origins? Explore his roots? I can't say. Sadly, the line is probably just an unfortunate racist remark, of which there are still far too many to be heard in Hong Kong cinema.

This is one of those movies that everyone can enjoy parts of. On the other hand, everyone will also dislike some parts. The only thing everyone can agree on is that Chow Yun-Fat's performance carries the film. Chow is so good you hardly even notice the strong supporting cast -- Cheung Man, Joey Wong, Andy Lau, Shing Fui-On, Ng Man-Tat -- are all just window dressing compared to Chow.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 31, 2004.


I think you need to watch that scene again - the "Indian" guy is coming at him in full aggro mode with two german shepherds gnawing their teeth in expectation of a bite of flesh. There was no "unfortunate racist remark", he's mocking him. Pretty cool, living without this whole racist BS the politicians try to instill in people.

Posted by: antonymous at December 17, 2007 03:51 PM
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