Film history isn’t a highlight reel of universally agreed-upon classics. It’s an epic story. But some chapters of the story draw more attention than others. Secret Cinema is a column dedicated to shining a light on compelling little-noticed, overlooked, or faded-from-memory movies from years past. Let’s talk about the films nobody’s talking about.
Watch any five-minute selection of the 1989 film God Of Gamblers, and you might not know what sort of film you’re watching. Watch the whole movie, and you still might not know. For a time the highest-grossing film in Hong Kong history, God Of Gamblers is, from scene to scene, a broad farce, a gangland action film, a slick drama set in the glamorous world of high-stakes gambling, a revenge thriller, and a slapstick comedy. It is, in other words, a fine example of what film scholar David Bordwell calls the “kaleidoscopic variety” of the rich, often strange, and just as often rewarding world of popular Hong Kong cinema, which reached a frenzied peak, in both volume and creativity, during the boom years of the ’80s and early ’90s, when the industry turned out film after film—of all sorts, and of all sorts mingled together.
God Of Gamblers could double as a core sample of that boom. It’s far from the best Hong Kong film I’ve seen—and here, I should confess I’m more fan than hardened aficionado—but it’s the most Hong Kong film I’ve seen. It opens in, a subtitle inform us “America • San Francisco,” a city apparently famed for its luxury casinos. In one of these, we meet the film’s hero, Ko Chun, played by Chow Yun-Fat. Ko’s reputation precedes him. Recognized by a casino manager, he’s informed that the casino has made a decision to cut his stake to protect itself. Ko excuses himself with one word and a smile: “Cash.” “Who was that guy?” the dealer asks the manager. His reply: “God Of Gamblers.” Cue the title card, which also reads God Of Gamblers, and we’re off.
By 1989, Chow was already well-known in Hong Kong, promoted from the ranks of popular TV actors to movie stardom by the success of John Woo’s breakthrough film A Better Tomorrow, in which he played a suave killer with slicked-back hair, an impeccably ruffled fashion sense, and a seemingly bottomless arsenal. Here, the hair and the cool remain as he plays a variation on his familiar persona. (He appeared in one of Woo’s best films, The Killer, the same year.) But rather than mowing down his opponents with guns, he uses his skills to defeat them at gambling tables. From San Francisco, the film follows Ko to Tokyo, where he participates in unusually athletic games of mahjongg and dice with a Japanese gangster and his female assistant, who pauses meaningfully to reveal a shoulder covered with yakuza tattoos. Not to be intimidated, Ko uses his supernaturally attuned hearing to predict her roll, a seemingly unbeatable combination of six ones. The game takes a stranger turn from there when Ko wins by shaking the dice so hard, one of them shatters in the shaker, giving him the win.
Impressed by Ko’s maybe not strictly legal victory, his opponent hires him to defeat a notorious gambler from Singapore, whom the opponent blames for his father’s death. Ko takes the job and asks only one thing in return: “a nice box of chocolate.”
This turns out to be foreshadowing the movie God Of Gamblers is about to become. In the next scene, we meet a new bunch of characters led by Knife, a hapless low-level hustler with no gift for cards, and his girlfriend, Jane (A Chinese Ghost Story star Joey Wong), who’s several steps above his social station. Andy Lau plays Knife. A multi-hyphenate like many Hong Kong stars, Lau has careers as a Cantopop singer and a film producer in addition to his acting work. (He remains active in all three arenas to this day; you might have seen him in Infernal Affairs, which Martin Scorsese remade as The Departed.) Angered by an obnoxious servant of Indian descent (an element that provides a window into some Hong Kong prejudices), Knife sets a trap by rigging the railing of a scenic overlook to collapse, so the servant will tumble down a hill. But instead of the servant, Ko falls into the trap. When Knife, Jane, and their sidekick find the badly injured Ko, they take him in. When he wakes up, he retains his godlike gambling skills, but has the mental capacity and personality of a small child.
At this point, God Of Gamblers shifts from being a slick gambling drama to a bizarre comedy in which Chow abandons his ultra-cool persona and starts acting like a hyperactive child, whom his new friends call “Chocolate,” due to his love of the sweet stuff. At first, they take care of him out of guilt and kindness, but when they learn of his gift for gambling, they start using chocolate to manipulate him for profit.
There isn’t a hint of vanity in Chow’s performance. He never winks as he throws himself into his man-child role, and never betrays that he remains an icon of cool beneath the dopey eyes and tousled hair. When he screams for chocolate, he seems like someone who really wants some chocolate now. (I’m trying to imagine someone like Bruce Willis pulling this off, and I can’t. Chow was nominated for Best Actor in the Hong Kong Film Awards for his performance here, only to lose to himself for his work in All About Ah-Long.) In spite of his frustration, Knife comes to care for the essentially helpless Ko, even while using him for his own gain. The film mixes lowbrow humor and syrupy sentiment, but it’s a weirdly successful mix, thanks in part to Chow and Lau’s performances—both have the easy charisma of born stars—and in part to the way God Of Gamblers, and Hong Kong cinema in general, conditions viewers to accept wild changes in tone and focus.
Tone and focus shift again in the film’s second hour, as it becomes an action film that showcases Lau’s ability to perform his own stunts, and lets prolific writer-director-producer Wong Jing borrow from everyone from John Woo to Brian De Palma. You could get dizzy thinking about the chain of influences involved in this scene:
It’s pretty clearly inspired by the scene in The Untouchables in which De Palma sent a baby carriage down a set of steps at Chicago’s Union Station. That was, in turn, inspired by a famous shot of a carriage tumbling down the Odessa Steps in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, but the chain of influences may not stop there. Watching it, I was reminded of a shot in a later De Palma film, Carlito’s Way, in which Al Pacino’s escape through Grand Central Terminal includes some escalator action shot from similar angles. Is it possible that De Palma, ever the cinematic omnivore, decided to borrow back from a director he’d inspired?
If so, he would be neither the first nor last to borrow from Hong Kong’s heyday. Hong Kong filmmakers made no attempt to hide their Hollywood influences, and Hollywood looked to Hong Kong for ideas and talent. Everyone from Woo to Chow to Tsui Hark to (of course) Jackie Chan has attempted to find crossover success in the States, with varying degrees of success. But Hollywood could never imitate Hong Kong’s anything-can-happen spirit. After its action stretch, God Of Gamblers returns to its original course, as a fully recovered Ko resumes his original mission. In the final scene, a triumphant, extremely forgiving Ko tells his new friend Knife that they’re off to gamble around the world together, starting with “Les Vegas.” Because why not? When you’re an international gambler coming off an embarrassing episode that found you working for a would-be criminal in exchange for chocolate, why wouldn’t you take him under your wing and whisk him around the world?
That unpredictable spirit drew viewers to Hong Kong films when they first began to drift into video stores and midnight screenings in the ’90s. They looked and felt like the products of an alternate-universe Hollywood, with a lot of familiar elements—cops and criminals, action stars, ghosts, vampires—used in unfamiliar ways and sent careening in unpredictable directions. “Most Hong Kong films,” Bordwell writes in his 2000 book Planet Hong Kong, “do not generally aspire to the Hollywood tradition of tight plotting that runs from, say, Keaton’s Our Hospitality and Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle to Die Hard and Groundhog Day.” That’s an understatement, and part of the initial pleasure of watching a Hong Kong film comes from that unpredictability. It’s the pleasure of getting lost.
There’s a second sort of pleasure, too: The pleasure of finding your way around this world. I watched a lot of Hong Kong films when I worked at Madison, Wisconsin’s venerable Four Star Video Heaven, which stocked hundreds of titles on VHS—more, I was told, than any video store in the U.S. not located in a Chinatown. In the Foreign Language section, they stood out both for their covers—generally a collage of stills from the films—and their alluring titles: Naked Killer, Aces Go Places, Rock ’N’ Roll Cop, School On Fire, Once Upon A Time In China, Kickboxer’s Tears, the list goes on. (A University Of Wisconsin professor, Bordwell frequently shopped there in the morning and gave me recommendations, which was kind of like getting tips on French cooking directly from Julia Child.) Watching one Hong Kong film was revelatory. But watching a bunch was even better: After a while, the pleasures came less from getting lost—though there’s no getting around the underlying oddness of Hong Kong films to Western eyes—and more from an outsider’s cobbled-together understanding of how Hong Kong cinema, with its own stars, movements, and subgenres, worked. Spend enough time in this world, and you’ll learn the difference between Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Tony Leung Ka-Fai, and you’ll know the landmarks of Hong Kong’s neon-lit, vendor-lined, advertisement-covered streets.
Hong Kong had its boom in the anxious years before being reabsorbed into China in 1997. What followed has been less a bust than a retraction. The growing popularity of American films, a shaky Asian economy, and other factors have contributed to a downturn in production. Interesting films still come out of Hong Kong, but I can’t help but feel a bit nostalgic for that moment when it seemed like anything could happen both within the films Hong Kong produced, and within the world that produced them.
God Of Gamblers’ success led to imitators and parodies, most prominently a 1990 film called All For The Winner starring a young Stephen Chow. In one scene, Chow’s character watches God Of Gamblers for inspiration. Digging the way Chow Yun-Fat’s character walks into a room in slow motion, he later imitates it by creeping in mock slow-motion into a gambling hall as everyone else around him moves at normal speed. Later, he dubs himself “Saint Of Gamblers.” Wong might have taken offense at this. Instead, when he decided to make God Of Gamblers II without Chow Yun-Fat, he simply teamed up Andy Lau’s character from God Of Gamblers with Stephen Chow’s Saint Of Gamblers from All For The Winner as if they had always existed in the same universe. And, in a sense, they did—in a thrillingly unpredictable Hong Kong made possible by the movies.
They Came To Rob Las Vegas (1968)