A Gambler's Story (2001)
by: Marco Mak
Here comes another gambling film from Wong Jing's production company. Do not dismiss it beforehand though since A Gambler's Story is far much better than most movies with Wong Jing's name somewhere on it.
Kee (Francis Ng from The Mission) is an addicted but not so talented gambler about to to experience some of the most turbulent days of his life. First his girlfriend breaks up with him, he meets heartbroken hostess Princess (Suki Kwan from The Irresistible Piggies) and then manages to build up a debt with a Macau triad. While held by them he again meets up with Princess who's also gotten herself into a bit of gambling trouble and this is just the start of their adventure together...
The title A Gambler's Story is not misleading entirely but Marco Mak's film is not a Wong Jing gambling movie at all really. It opens and closes at the gambling table but there the links to previous movies in the genre ends. It's not easy to precisely pinpoint what the movie is since it's all over the place (both geographically and structure wise) but if I had to define it, I'd say it's a non formulaic romantic comedy. It takes place over a few rollercoaster like days (the director even inserts POV shots of a rollercoaster ride to further highlight this) and it's thanks to a few specific aspects that Marco Mak's film surprises.
Marco has done much editing work in the past for Tsui Hark and his credits include the Once Upon A Time In China series and Swordsman II. He decided to debut as a director with Love Correction in 2000 and has since made seven films, the latest being the Jordan Chan and Patrick Tam vehicle The Wall. He clearly knows film and with A Gambler's Story he mixes a distinct visual style with an unpredictable yet easy to follow plot. At times we're almost drowned in sound and odd camera work, something that in many movies just feels out of place but Marco makes it part of the light hearted mood.
Marco seems to be a very visual director and unlike other ones in the same category, he makes it part of the narrative and not something that's used instead of a narrative. He also structures the movie around Kee's voice-overs that tells us what's going on in his life or his thoughts in general. In these voice-overs certain events are emphasized with the help of a soundeffect or a visual gag. Take for instance the scene where Kee's girlfriend breaks up with him by cooking one final supper. Here the camera cuts to the painting of Jesus Christ's last supper and then morphs into Kee at the dinner table again. The films rather low-key (for a Hong Kong movie) humour is mostly created in the editing (a responsibility Marco hasn't fully let go off even when he's directing) through jump cuts, which creates a rather amusing feel. Those jump cuts and constant repositioning of the camera works very well in the 'erotic' scene between Francis and Suki. This scene could've easily turned into something gratuitous in another director's hands but Marco makes it fresh and original by not doing anything fresh or original technically. The humour itself is very far away from the Wong Jing style except for the male rapist subplot that couldn't have come from anyone else but him. That scene is odd but Lam Suet makes it fun even though we don't want to laugh at it.
The romantic comedy aspect doesn't dominate but blends in equally with all the other things going on around the characters. The reason why it isn't, as I mentioned, a formulaic rom/com is because of the way Marco tells the story. We just get to follow Kee when he goes from one place to the next and along the way he befriends a lot of people, including Princess. Even if much of what happens seems a bit over the top, it almost feels like another episode out of Kee's life (one of the more intense ones anyway). It all comes full circle in the end which is a thing I must express my disappointment in. Marco Mak's intentions with the ending becomes clear in the final voice-over by Kee but I would've liked the film to go into a different direction personally.
Two other aspects that are very noticeable is the cinematography and the score. Tony Miu (DP on The Eternal Evil Of Asia) creates an almost burning yellow look that doesn't enhance nor ruin the film. The scenes shot on location in Macau looks very good though but a natural coloured look would've worked as well I think. Lincoln Lo's music adds more power to the light mood director Marco Mak has created in filming. In threatening situations for example, there's always light and breezy music being played that makes it more fun, even if it isn't for the characters. The movies isn't meant to be very serious and that is nicely reflected in the score. Even Johan Strauss An Der Schönen Blauen Donau is mixed into the atmosphere to great effect.
For Francis Ng this isn't, at first glance, a very demanding role. What becomes challenging for him is acting Kee physically and Kee in the voice-overs. Because the character isn't very expressive externally, Francis must act less in the movie but more in his narration. What he's saying is mostly stuff he'd rather keep to himself and it's only during the latter part of the film that he begins to open up. The most laughs from Francis is generated through his varied facial expressions and mannerisms that one now have begun to notice after seeing quite a few movies with him.. I'm sure there are many other actors that could've performed this role well but Francis adds such a level of professionalism and helps the filmmakers to realize their vision. He and Suki Kwan are a very likeable on screen duo and Suki really shows a toughness and sensitivity which doesn't make you think of the word cliché. The mentioned Lam Suet (from Running Out Of Tome) and Sam Lee (from Made In Hong Kong) also appears in supporting parts.
Marco Mak's A Gambler's Story combines audio and visuals into a thoroughly enjoyable film. Despite the disappointing ending, I urge you to see this overlooked 2001 movie.
Mei Ah presents the film in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Very little print damage is seen and the strong colours of the cinematography comes off very well. Sharpness is also very much ok for a Hong Kong dvd. 16:9 enhancement would've been nice but it's only fairly recently that Mei Ah has begun producing such discs.
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track still sounds better than the 2.0 option (I only have a Pro Logic setup). The track is better spread out but dialogue tends to be slightly drowned out in scenes with music. The same 5.1 and 2.0 options are also selectable in Mandarin.
The English subtitles doesn't feature many errors but a fair number of strange sentences grammar wise. You can easily follow what's going on though. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also on the disc.
The Data Bank holds the always useless cast & crew listing plus the plot synopsis from the back cover. There are trailers for Glass Tears and United We Stand, And Swim but disappointingly no trailer for A Gambler's Story.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson