You might think that a film franchise that has always made money across numerous sequels and spin-offs, and been one of the most successful in Hong Kong movie history, would have also achieved some worldwide acclaim. But the God of Gamblers series of films has achieved all of these things yet remains largely unknown in the west, despite its huge success throughout Asia.
The series of films contain a heady mix of comedy, romance, tragedy, action, and, of course, gambling; which makes the films hard to pin down as belonging in one particular genre.
This mix of styles is typical of the work of the director of all of the movies in the series, Wong Jing. One of Hong Kong’s most prolific director/writer/producers, over a career spanning more than 40 years, he has been involved in some capacity or other in around 180 films.
Despite his huge output, Jing has never really been recognized for his talents, with many critics looking down on his distinctly crowd-pleasing sensibility with a great readiness to use all of the audience manipulation techniques at his disposal.
The big question is why the series hasn’t been more watched in the west. After all, there’s an obvious appetite for gambling, as this site indicates in this review of just one of the many online casinos available online today.
Then there’s the huge popularity of action movies. Perhaps even the cultural barriers that might have been an issue are being broken down, following the Oscar-winning success of the South Korean masterpiece Parasite earlier this year.
The first of the series came in 1989 when Jing was near the peak of his powers and was producing around nine or ten movies a year. It told the story of the eponymous hero, played by Chow Yun-Fat, and co-starred Andy Lau as the keen disciple. The plot involves a competition between the God of Gamblers who has been set the challenge of overcoming the so-called Demon of Gamblers, a Singaporean card player known to be a notorious cheat.
Before the two meet, there are several superb set-piece fights and shoot-outs to rival any in cinema. Unsurprisingly, the God of Gamblers prevails and, at the end of the film, is set to head off to Las Vegas accompanied by his protégé, Little Knife played by Lau. The film was a big hit, taking over HK$37 million at the box office and paving the way for a sequel.
At this point, matters became a little confusing. That’s because the next film in the series was called God of Gamblers II and was released in 1990. Rather than following the fortunes of the God of Gamblers, it told the story of Little Knife, with the absence of Chow Yun-Fat being explained by the fact that he was in Brazil (of course). Nevertheless, the film was another hit taking HK$40 million.
By the third film in the series, things started to get weird. Neither Chow Yun-Fat nor Andy Lau appeared in the cast. Instead, it stars Stephen Chow, best known for his comic roles, as the Saint of Gamblers, a character who had been introduced in the previous film. This time, there was time travel involved, whisking the character back to 1937 Shanghai.
Here, he receives gambling advice from his grandfather and is also involved in several high-octane run-ins not just with gambling rivals, but with the Japanese military too. Unsurprisingly, due to the rather confusing storyline, this was the least successful of the sequence taking only HK$31 million.
Film four, on the other hand, was a true return to form for the director and was the most successful out of all the franchise taking HK$52 million. Called God of Gamblers Returns and released in 1994, it’s the true sequel to the very first in the series and takes place five years later. Once again, we meet up with Chow Yun-Fat, who is living in France with his pregnant wife, Wan Yau.
However, this idyll is ruined by the arrival of the notorious Taiwanese gambler and gangster Chau Siu-Chee, who murders Wan Yau to goad the God of Gamblers into taking him on in an all-or-nothing game of poker. To discover what happens, you’ll have to catch the movie.
If you want to discover one of the most exciting, yet underrated gambling and action franchises ever, all of the movies are well-worth seeking out!