Picking up where God of Gamblers II (1990) left off, the second sequel finds vengeful gambling master Tai-Kun (John Ching Tung) out for blood from goofy but supernaturally-gifted so-called Saint of Gamblers, Chow Sing Cho (Stephen Chow Sing-Chi) and his sidekick Tat (Ng Man Tat). Sharp-suited assassins cunningly disguised as sexy bikini babes fail to kill the daffy duo but when Chow engages Tai-Kun in a psychic duel a burst of energy unexpectedly catapults him back in time to Shanghai in the year 1937. Here he befriends Tat's oddly effeminate grandfather, Tai-Fook (also played by Ng Man Tat) and is embroiled in a turf war between heroic crime boss Ding Lik (Ray Lui Leung-Wai) and a rival mob led by Wong Kam-Kwai (Lung Fong) who have allied themselves with the Japanese army including a ferocious female commander (Wong Wan-Si). Chow also falls in love with what he believes to be Ding Lik's mistress glamorous socialite Yu-San (Gong Li) unaware he is actually romancing her hopelessly retarded identical twin Yu-Mong (Gong Li, again). Allying himself with dashingly decent Ding Lik, Chow uses his amazing psychic abilities to prevent the villains from seizing control of his casino but the Japanese employ fiendish tricks with fatal consequences.
Whereas the original God of Gamblers stretched the crime thriller to the outer limits of credibility but still came up trumps, part three abandons all pretense at realism for a frenzied fantasy adventure mixing time travel, mind-bending psychic powers, 1930s nostalgia, full-blown musical numbers, cod-John Woo gangland shootouts, kung fu action, a surprisingly sweet love story and of course, a heaping helping of slapstick nonsense. As if all that weren't enough the film extends the post-modern japery a step further by also mounting a spoof sequel to the classic Hong Kong television series Shanghai Beach, which happened to make a star out of a certain young actor by the name of Chow Yun-Fat! Co-star Ray Lui Leung-Wai recreates his role as good-hearted crime kingpin Ding Lik while much comedic mileage is yoked from Chow Sing Cho having seen the TV show so many times he can predict exactly what every character is going to say or do. With so much going on one might expect God of Gamblers III: Back to Shanghai would be a complete mess but in fact it is one of Stephen Chow and Wong Jing's most inventive and enjoyable movies and, gag for gag, ranks among the funniest Hong Kong comedies of all time.
Both Wong Jing and Stephen Chow have repeatedly admitted their highly visual style of humour is heavily influenced by anime and manga. Hence the set-pieces are styled much like a live action cartoon employing cartoonish slapstick and colourful special effects. It is a gorgeously designed film with eye-catching costumes and sumptuous sets imparting a uniquely dreamlike tone. While the Stephen Chow-Ng Man Tat double-act ensures a barrage of sharp wisecracks, ridiculous puns and gravity-defying facial contortions, the surprisingly smart plot employs such amusing conceits as the cell phone that allows Chow to talk to his friends back in 1991 (an idea Russell T. Davies went on to employ in his revival of Doctor Who, though it is doubtful he saw this film), a hilarious twist wherein Chow ensures his family's future fortune by inventing McDonalds - which prefigures a lovely pastel-hued musical number worthy of Stanley Donen - and the ongoing confusion arising from his frantic pursuit of aloof Yu-San unaware he is actually dating a girl with the I.Q. of a five year old. Producer Charles Heung returns from the first film as the God of Gamblers' grim-faced but good-natured bodyguard Brother Ng, former Shaw Brothers action diva Yeung Jing-Jing appears as Ding Lik's kick-ass right hand girl and there is a supporting role for Sandra Ng who went on to be one of the biggest names in Cantonese comedy from the Nineties onwards. However, the real casting coup was securing acclaimed mainland actress Gong Li. Best known for her art-house roles for directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, Li shows she is game for a laugh with an amusing dual turn. She went on to work with Stephen Chow once again in the equally popular Flirting Scholar (1993).
After the light-hearted tone of the first half events take a darker turn following the surprise death of a major character as the plot grows pleasingly complex and suspenseful culminating in a showdown with the fabled French God of Gamblers (Declan Michael Wong), a shootout between a modern Hong Kong SWAT team and Japanese soldiers and a fantastic triple twist ending. Three years on from this Wong Jing managed to lure Chow Yun-Fat back for the "official" sequel, God of Gamblers Return (1994).