Director: Wong Jing
Screenplay: Wong Jing
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Andy Lau, Joey Wang, Charles Heung, Lung Fong, Cheung Man, Pau Hon-Lam, Chak Lam Yeung, Shing Fui-On, Ronald Wong
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 126 min
Year: 1989
BBFC Certificate: 18

Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers was a huge success in Hong Kong following its release in 1989. The clandestine nature of the subject matter (gambling is illegal in Hong Kong) might help explain its success, but it’s also likely to do with it pairing the then hugely popular Chow Yun-Fat with rising megastar Andy Lau. Whatever the reason for the film’s success, it led to a 25-year-long complex web of sequels and spin-offs that puts some of the recent Hollywood ‘extended universes’ to shame.

I loved what I’d seen of John Woo’s ‘heroic bloodshed’ films back when I was a teenager in the late 90s and, for whatever reason, had always equated God of Gamblers with those films, so it was on my watchlist back then. I never got around to it though, despite buying it on DVD at some point along the way (I have a terrible physical media buying habit that means my ‘to-watch’ pile is similar in size to Netflix’s entire streaming library – no exaggeration). So, when I heard 88 Films would be releasing the film on Blu-ray with their usual bells and whistles, I decided to finally scratch that itch.

God of Gamblers sees Yun-Fat play the titular character, otherwise known as Ko Chun, a man with an uncanny ability to always win at gambling. His reputation catches the attention of Tanaka, a wealthy Japanese gambler. Tanaka’s father had taken his life after being cheated out of his money during a high-stakes game with Chan Kam-sing (Pau Hon-Lam), the ‘Demon of Gamblers’, and Tanaka believes Chun is the only person who could help him get revenge.

Chun agrees to take the job but, before he makes much progress with the plan, he falls foul of a dangerous trap set for the neighbour of the wannabe gambler Little Knife (Andy Lau). Sent tumbling down a hill, Chun smashes his head on a rock and the resulting impact causes him to lose his memory and revert to having the mind of a child.

Worried that he might get in trouble for setting the trap and discouraged from dumping Chun by his girlfriend Jane (Joey Wang), Knife nurses Chun back to health. Noticing Chun had a large amount of money on his person though, he uses this to try and make some much-needed cash for himself through a gambling scam with a local gangster.

During this process, Knife discovers Chun’s innate skill/luck at gambling, so takes advantage of it for his own gains.

Meanwhile, Chun’s right-hand man Ko Yee (Lung Fong) uses his friend’s absence to plot to come out of the God of Gambler’s shadow.

Well, God of Gamblers wasn’t quite what I expected. As mentioned, I hadn’t done my research and saw it as another heroic bloodshed movie or possibly a martial-arts-inspired action movie, with Yun-Fat using playing cards as weapons! Instead, I got what should have been expected from Wong Jing, a bit of a crazy mishmash of genres with a healthy dose of comedy.

Wong Jing has long had a reputation as a knock-off merchant, churning out films that jump on whatever bandwagon is ‘trending’ at the time. Whilst this often results in some cheap and cheerful failures, he had an eye for what made entertaining cinema and could deliver the goods when he hit the right notes. God of Gamblers certainly struck a chord with its contemporary audiences and I’m pleased to say it’s one of the better films of his I’ve seen, even if it wasn’t what expected.

The film jumps between styles and tones with some humour, melodrama and action stirred into the crime movie plot. It doesn’t always make sense either, most notably with the nature of Chun’s supreme gambling ability switching between skill, intuition, martial arts (in a wonderful mahjong scene), luck, technology and even a bit of magic. You could call the film a mess, in this sense, as it doesn’t always follow its own logic, though I think the tonal shifts are well handled and part of its unique charm. The plot is always fully explained too, so whilst the film can feel all over the place, its wildly varied pieces all ultimately fit together.

Where it didn’t quite work for me though was the mid-section, when it turns into Rain Man meets Heart of Dragon. The old ‘blow to the head causing amnesia’ trope was popular back then, though Jing claims a film from the 60s, which in turn was a remake of a 40s Hollywood production, gave him the inspiration for the story here. I don’t have a problem with that concept but wasn’t a fan of how it regressed Chun’s mental state. It weighs the film down with sentimentality and lowbrow humour, typical for Wong Jing’s films, even if it brings out a few touching moments. Too much time is spent on this strand for my liking, leading to a bloated mid-section. Once the final third kicks into gear though and the story returns to what was set up at the start, with a few dark twists, it becomes much more gripping.

There aren’t a lot of action scenes but when they come they’re very good. There’s some hard-hitting fist and weapon fighting in the earlier portion of the film, a wonderful stunt showcase on bamboo scaffolding and a thrilling extended John Woo-style squib-heavy shootout in the final third.

The gambling scenes are very effective too. Jing adds a great deal of tension here, pacing things perfectly, making good use of reaction shots and adding some clever camera angles. The cinematography, in general, is very attractive, with some beautifully textured lighting and good use of colour.

The cast is key to the film’s success though. Chow Yun-Fat is one of the most beloved of Hong Kong stars, aided by his wholesome, down-to-Earth personal life, and was at the peak of his craft at the time (The Killer came out in the same year). He seems to be having a lot of fun here, shifting from his usual charismatic, super-cool persona to an emotionally unstable man-child. He’s also key to selling the more ridiculous aspects of the film and its shifts in tone and logic through his great charm. I must admit, I felt his portrayal of a mentally stunted amnesia sufferer was rather overplayed though. Hong Kong actors of that era are rarely subtle though, to be honest.

Lau was and still is a hugely successful Cantopop star on top of being one of the most successful Hong Kong actors. Like Yun-Fat, he also does a great job in God of Gamblers, selling the rogueish wannabe gangster side of his character whilst adding warmth and humanity under the surface to keep him from being unlikeable.

A blip in the otherwise light and enjoyable film is some casual racism surrounding the ‘Indian guy’ whom Knife originally set the trap for that causes Chun’s accident. Both lead characters make throwaway comments that come across as rather offensive, joking about stealing the man’s “curry” and telling him to “go back to India to eat bananas”. I appreciate times have changed since but surely this was still frowned upon in 1989, particularly coming from lead characters we’re supposed to root for?

Those unfortunate couple of lines aside, God of Gamblers is an unusual hybrid of genres that takes an unexpected turn into amnesia drama in its mid-section. The diversion lasts a little long perhaps and can be corny, but it adds heart to this unique yarn and the strong cast help it keep afloat. With a smattering of thrilling set pieces and a slick presentation, it’s all-around entertainment that’s easy to enjoy.

Film:

God of Gamblers is out now on region B Blu-Ray, released by 88 Films. You can order it directly from the label here. The transfer is first-rate, with incredibly sharp details and gorgeous colours. Blacks can be a bit heavy but this might be a style choice and it does help the colours pop. I noticed one shot where the grain struggled in conversion, resulting in a touch of digital noise but it was barely noticeable. Otherwise, it’s a natural-looking image. I’ve used screengrabs throughout the review to give you an idea, though these have been compressed and don’t look nearly as sharp as they do in motion through my projector.

The audio was also pleasing on the Cantonese mono track I chose to watch the film with. An English mono dub and Cantonese 5.1 track are also available.

Limited Edition Special Features:

– Limited Edition Double Walled Slipcase with art by Sean Longmore
– Limited Edition Double-sided foldout poster
– Limited Edition Booklet Notes by Paul Bramhall
– High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray™ presentation
– Original Cantonese Mono with English Subtitles & SDH
– Alternate Cantonese 5.1 DTS-HD MA with English Subtitles & SDH
– English Mono Dub
– Audio Commentary with Hong Kong Cinema Expert David West
– Audio Commentary with Hong Kong Cinema Experts Frank Djeng and F.J. DeSanto
– Archive Interview with Chow Yun Fat,
– Archive Interview with Andy Lau
– Two Archive Interviews with Wong Jing
– English Titles
– Hong Kong Trailer
– English Trailer
– Stills Gallery
– Reversible cover with new art by Sean Longmore and original Hong Kong Poster

David West’s commentary is superb. He begins by telling a detailed story of Wong Jing’s career, before delving into the work of others involved in the film. He doesn’t shy from the more ‘controversial’ aspects of Jing’s life, films and politics either, making for an engrossing warts-and-all listen. The story of Charles Heung and the influence of the triads on the Hong Kong film industry and the government is fascinating too.

There’s another commentary on the disc that’s not listed on the case, with Frank Djeng and F.J. DeSanto. As usual, Djeng rockets through his incredibly well-researched facts about everyone involved in the film, whilst discussing its merits with DeSanto. It makes for a nice balance and a pleasurable listen. There’s some crossover with West’s track, of course, but they have enough of a different approach to make both tracks well worthwhile.

Wong Jing’s two interviews are decent, if brief. He talks about God of Gamblers as well as his work as a whole and his reputation. He seems fairly honest about everything, which prevents the interviews from getting too ‘fluffy’.

Chow Yun-Fat’s 18-minute interview is from 1993, at the height of his fame and before he attempted to make films in Hollywood. He’s honest about his personal dislike for violence. A lot of the interview surrounds his work with John Woo rather than God of Gamblers but it’s still a valuable addition to the disc.

The archive interview with Andy Lau runs for around 11 minutes. He talks about how his career got started, as well as how working in Hong Kong as an actor differs from other countries. The conversation later moves on to his experiences of working with Wong Jing. He talks in good humour, making for an enjoyable piece.

The booklet consists largely of an essay from Paul Bramhall that charts the complicated waters of sequels and spin-offs from God of Gamblers. It’s a bizarre journey that’s worth taking and plenty of publicity material keeps the booklet visually interesting too.

On top of this, those early adopters picking up the limited edition release will get a handsome double-sided poster and a high-quality slipcase. I must admit, I’m not usually too fussed about physical extras like this but they are very attractively presented. The new artwork is particularly eye-catching and the slipcase is sturdier than most.

Overall, whilst the film maybe didn’t quite live up to my expectations, it’s still a very enjoyable watch and the extra features are of a very high standard, making for a release that’s easy to recommend.

Disc/package:

God of Gamblers - 88 Films
Film
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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