Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Just in time for Runner Runner, we deal five movies about gamblers.
God Of Gamblers (1989)
Hong Kong’s gambling craze—which saw a succession of increasingly self-aware gambling-themed movies dominate the box office—began in 1989, with two films directed by Wong Jing: God Of Gamblers and Casino Raiders. Though the latter was a hit and spawned two sequels, one of which was an important early success for Johnnie To, God Of Gamblers had the bigger impact, setting the tone for the genre and becoming a major pop-cultural touchstone.
The film stars Chow Yun-Fat as a globe-trotting master gambler who loses his memory in an accident caused by lowlife Andy Lau; though the head injury makes Chow regress into childhood, he retains his gambling skills, leading Lau to believe that he’s stumbled upon some kind of idiot savant. It’s not hard to see what made the filmso popular: God Of Gamblers amps up the risk, intrigue, and luxury associated with gambling, but keeps storytelling realism to a bare minimum; at times, it seems to exist in the same high-stakes cartoon universe as the Ocean’s movies and the later Fast & Furious flicks.
Wong, a reliably entertaining stylist, deploys a variety of over-the-top techniques: emphatic cuts and zooms, fights filmed with space-distorting wide-angle lenses, and even an aggressively choreographed mahjong scene. The movie—scored to the kind of incongruously jaunty MIDI music familiar from countless Cantonese productions of the period—skips along from one unlikelihood to the next.
The true key to God Of Gamblers’ success, though, is Chow’s bizarrely committed performance. Instead of merely subverting his character’s super-suave persona, Chow completely throws himself into playing his post-head-injury character; as a 5-year-old, he’s unnervingly credible, especially in terms of body language. Instead of merely presenting the viewer with an unlikely story set in the real world, God Of Gamblers seems to take place in its own unlikely reality, where something as ridiculous as a brilliant gambler turning into a chocolate-addicted pre-school child feels totally natural.