Ko Chun (Chow Yun-Fat) is the renowned God of Gamblers thanks to his incredible skills on the poker tables, with rumours he is so good that he can change the cards themselves to suit his purpose. Today he is in Japan, where it's another form of betting he is taking part in, first with mahjong tiles that he manipulates with his unbeatable talents to win yet again, and the same with a cup of dice, this in spite of being pitted against the greatest dice player in the country: Chun achieves his success by breaking one of the cubes in the cup, thereby ensuring he can get the lowest score. But you don't become the best without making a few enemies...
Wong Jing was the man behind God of Gamblers, a controversial figure in Hong Kong cinema as many populists can be, but nevertheless one who was able to tap into the Asian markets and create productions which earned a lot of money. If you wanted to draw parallels between the movie business and taking bets at the casino then that might explain Wong's preferences, but mostly this was about delivering the entertainment by packing as many varied scenes into the film as possible all to have the audience feel as if they had their money's worth, which meant comedy, drama, action and the like mixed up together in one big experience.
Well, not that big, it was obvious Wong was cutting corners in bringing this to the screen, but what funds he had were well used thanks to his savvy in penning the script too. Helping that to quite some degree was his canny casting, as Chow Yun-Fat had over the past few years previous to this become one of Hong Kong's most celebrated stars, partly thanks to his versatility and partly thanks to the indefinable cool that only the select few in the movie business were blessed with. Even when he was acting the fool in a work such as this you went with it because of his savoir faire carrying his screen persona through just about any sequence he was asked to do, be they dramatic, comedic, romantic or simply throwing himself around the set.
As a result, outside of the John Woo efforts he was perhaps best know for, God of Gamblers was one of the most successful entries in his C.V., proving very influential in the East Asian territories, though bizarrely this was not a work which stood alone, as Wong appeared to have taken a viewing of Rain Man to heart and based his screenplay on it. In that film, Dustin Hoffman played an autistic savant who could clean up at gambling, all of which was played for tearjerking drama and gentle laughs, perfect, pandering Oscar bait which this was decidedly not. There was sentimentality here, it was true, but Wong Jing was not aiming to secure his Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, in spite of this being more entertaining.
How much better would Rain Man have been if Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman had gotten into a bloody shootout about three quarters of the way through? OK, that's a matter of opinion, but Wong lifted the whole concept of a mentally challenged character being great at cards and applied it to Chow's endeavours, so by complicated means he ends up accidentally falling into a trap engineered by small time hustler Andy Lau for somebody else. Chun hits his head on a rock on his descent and before you know it has been adopted by Lau and his girlfriend Joey Wong both because they feel responsible for him now he has lost his memory and faculties, but also more lucratively because he remains brilliant at cards. What spirals out from this are the likes of Lau's famous battle on the scaffolding, a spot of offscreen necrophilia (huh?), that shootout, and a climactic poker game which Wong designed as an homage to The Cincinatti Kid. If it's ramshackle and rough round the edges, all involved were professional enough to keep it barrelling along with flair. Music by Lowell Lo (and Burt Bacharach?!)