From Vegas to Macau by Wong Jing

From Vegas to Macau by Wong Jing

 

The God of Gamblers series were the films of my childhood and were amongst the first films I binge-watched on television. Chow Yun Fat in a pompadour and tuxedo with unexplainable gambling powers walking in slow-motion was just the epitome of cinematic cool. The success of the first GOG spawned three spinoff series, a sequel and a prequel. The gambling movies peaked with the Stephen Chow series when he took it to new heights with his brand of nonsensical humor. The trend started to die out in the late 90’s and eventually in the 2000’s became embarrassing rehashes starring Nick Cheung. The only interesting addition was 1999’s The Conman starring Andy Lau, a reboot of The Knight of Gamblers series, which interestingly rooted the gambling into reality. Sadly it was ruined by its lackluster sequel The Conmen in Vegas, which was a string of unfunny lewd gags.

Now here we are with From Vegas to Macau, the story starts with small-time conman Cool (Nicholas Tse), whose undercover policeman half-brother (Phillip Ng) is murdered by Ko (Gao Hu), the head of an illegal gambling syndicate. Cool seeks the help of “Magic Hands” Ken (Chow Yun Fat), a legendary gambler turned casino security consultant, to battle Ko.

As you may have figured, Chow is unfortunately not playing the Ko Chun character. The Ken character is more akin to Chow’s silly comedic roles in The Diary of a Big Man or The Eighth Happiness, which is overall less serious. However much of Chow’s cinematic allure is still there. I can watch Chow Yun Fat in a tuxedo walking into lobbies greeting people all day. When Chow sits at a gambling table, you just want him to win so much you don’t even care how he is doing it. He is the warm bright sun shining onto this film, and every time he is not onscreen, it starts to feel cold and stale.

Nicholas Tse looks bored playing the stone-faced romantic lead Cool. Tse plays it so straight it looks like he belongs in another movie. Jing Tian, having previously starring together with Donnie Yen and Jackie Chan, is getting on my nerves from overexposure. Her policewoman is bland. I would kindly suggest that she go fire a real gun and wear the police gear before the day of the shoot, because she always looks like she’s playing dress up. As the comic relief, Chapman To does the most with he’s given with delivering the cheesiest jokes in rapid-fire delivery. To does it with such earnestness that he just about gets away with it.

Even after 20 years, Wong Jing is still giving the same gags. I started guessing the punchlines to all of the gags. Even worse, I knew where they were all done before. To name a few tropes: the international water plot twist, staging a fake football broadcast, and the fat women being undesirable gag are all here. The most unforgivable thing is that there isn’t a final gambling match at the end,

The biggest con man is perhaps Wong Jing himself, who in the final shot of the film, teases the audience with a surprise cameo appearance and plays a hip hop cover of Lowell Lo’s original God of Gamblers theme song in the end credits, which insinuates the good film that he could have made, the film that everybody came to see. And that is just mean-spirited.

Wong Jing, having seen him speak in interviews, has a very ‘ends justify the means’ approach to everything he does. As long as he makes money, everything he does is justified. That is the accountant-like approach to Jing’s directing. What’s most infuriating is the gambling film series feel stuck in time is not because of its nineties pastiche, but because Wong Jing has no interest of taking it anywhere by updating or adding a new modern angle to it. From Vegas to Macau just feels like reheated overnight food.


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Drug War by Johnnie To

Drug War by Johnnie To

Police captain Zhang (played by Sun Honglei) partners with a drug lord named Timmy Choi (played by Louis Koo) after he is arrested. To avoid the death penalty, Choi agrees to reveal information about his partners who operate a cocaine ring. Zhang grows suspicious of Choi’s honesty as several police officers began a raid on the drug ring.

Drug War is a crime film made and released in Mainland China by a Hong Kong film company. Naturally there is going to be an element of political compromise. All the policemen are Mainland Chinese and all the drug dealers are from Hong Kong (Take a guess which side wins in the end). Nationalism in movies has never really bothered me unless it’s oozing with disgustingness (i.e. Michael Bay’s Armageddon). That is not the case here and I don’t have a problem with that. My interest is not the politics, but rather what Johnnie To will bring to drug film set in Mainland China. The answer? Not too much.

What’s missing from Drug War are the Johnnie To quirks. The zany off-the-wall characters who have speech impediments and odd ticks are gone. The dramatic noir lighting, minimalistic stage-like blocking or themes of brotherhood are gone. Even the gunplay is less stylized and presented in a realistic fashion. I don’t miss any of these specific quirks or tropes, but without the idiosyncratic Johnnie To stamp, what’s left is a very straightforward police procedural.

The characters are servicing the plot, which is odd for a Johnnie To film because usually it’s the other way round. We don’t get insight into the distinct personalities of the drug dealers or police officers and their relationships (like in Election, an ensemble piece where it manages to characterize the supporting characters). We don’t know if they have family members or girlfriends waiting for them at home or any backstory. The story is simply moving beat-by-beat linearly on the central question of how trustworthy Louis Koo’s drug lord character is. There’s nobody you’re supposed to be rooting for, but things are continually changing and you simply watch awaiting the final outcome.

To, a director and producer with his own production company, has always been best when he has free reign. The limits of To’s free reign authorship is that he is very culturally rooted to Hong Kong and possesses a firm voice regarding to its politics (Election), economic condition (Life Without Principle), daily life in Hong Kong (the office politics in Needing You), or even local nostalgia (Throwdown, Sparrow). As exemplified in 2008’s Vengeance, a project which was co-financed by French financiers and starred French rock singer Johnny Halliday, To’s directorial voice is weaker when he steps outside of his comfort zone. The three Hong Kong actors casted alongside Johnny Halliday to couch the star for two thirds of Vengeance mirrors the Milkyway regulars who show up as the seven Hong Kong drug bosses in Drug War’s denouement. It’s like he is trying to recalibrate the film by filling it with things he’s familiar with. However, there is no sense of To’s personal perspective on the topic of drug running, drug addiction, crime or how the police work in China through the film’s story, themes or characters. That makes a bit tame because To has fared much better in the past.

In context to Johnnie To’s back catalogue, Drug War will be remembered for pushing the boundaries with the Chinese Film Bureau. The Mainland police are shown working undercover and solving crimes, having gun battles with criminals and some even dying in the line of duty; these are all images that were previously not allowed to be shown in a Mainland theatrical release. Yet now we are seeing them onscreen. So that is a proper achievement that’s worth celebrating. The final product is probably more telling of Chinese film censorship than of To’s directorial sensibilities. But I can’t help but think that there is a grittier, nuttier version of Drug War lying in the corner of Johnnie To’s desk that is stamped “rejected”, namely the version of the story that he didn’t get to make.