The Conman 1999 (1998)

Produced, written and directed by: Wong Jing
Starring: Andy Lau, Nick Cheung, Athena Chu, Waise Lee, Angie Cehung & Wong Jing

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Nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1999:
Best Supporting Actor (Nick Cheung)

Even if Wong Jing has kept himself busy over the years directing and producing hordes of films, he certainly isn't associated with class and subtlety. There are exceptions where he has almost made a full on 'classy' movie, best example being God Of Gamblers starring Chow Yun-Fat. In that movie there were traits though of the Wong Jing I don't particular like but more than ever he showed that a genuine talent is hidden somewhere in there. With The Conman 1999 he returns to the gambling-genre.

King (Andy Lau from the first God Of Gamblers movie) is a professional gambler who ends up in prison after murdering a man, at the gambling table, in self defense. Behind him he leaves a pregnant wife that he's neglected almost totally in favour of the cards. 5 years later King is released and wants nothing but to reunite with his wife and the child he's never seen. He enlists small time hoodlum Dragon (Nick Cheung, who also appeared in the subsequent Conman-movies) to help him locate his wife while also teaching him a thing or two about the art of gambling. King himself does not really want to return to the tables but is forced into action when the close ones to him are put into jeopardy...

A little bit into The Conman 1999 I started to see a movie I didn't expect from Wong Jing. I had in mind a very loud and flashy entry into the gambling-genre (with SEVERAL instances of bad humour inserted at every corner). While those traits are present it seems that the director wanted to surprise his audiences a little by making a slightly more warm and human movie. He does manage to maintain that idea almost all the way through and credit must also go to Andy Lau's presence that helps to realize some of Wong Jing's intentions. There are still a few things that does not work in this movie, mainly towards the end where the whacky and frankly annoying side of Wong Jing's way of filmmaking shines through. In terms of gambling scenes Wong Jing is a veteran and once again he creates some nice tension through editing and a nice array of stylish camera angles.

The script could be seen as a rehash of movies like God of Gamblers Return but that's being quite picky. However there are other flaws to be found in Wong Jing's script. There really is only one interesting and fairly fleshed out character in this and that is King. It's evident that a little time went into giving him some depth and sympathy without the character being overly complex. But no other character has an arc and comes off as rather flat and lifeless, making them pretty meaningless to the story. The movie would've worked so much better if Wong Jing had given the main characters around Andy a little depth at least. Despite huge flaws like this, actors like Nick Cheung and Waise Lee are rarely boring to look at, so the movie doesn't drag when they're on screen.

At 107 minutes, The Conman 1999 is too long and the final section in particular needed some trimming. Wong Jing divides his time between the big final gambling showdown and the World Cup Soccer final of 1998! In the movie that game is arranged so that the result will favour King and it's a fun idea at the beginning. The director does become very self indulgent (he makes an appearance himself in this part of the movie) and busy with the soccer bit that he almost forgets the card game. Therefore he does not reach triumphs in excitement and tension that similar showdowns in his previous movies have.

That Wong Jing loves childish and sex-related humour is no news to fans of Hong Kong Cinema. That it turns up in this movie is not really surprising either but he keeps it almost at a minimum and instead gives us some more human comedic moments between the characters. When his 'trademark' comedy does appear it's so outrageously out of place and incredibly non-funny that you can't help to wonder if he's the only one who finds it amusing. Having said that, I think he has the viewing audience in mind and in Hong Kong this type of broad humour plays well. If he had an international audience in mind, he would be better off trying out more of the subtle humour that he can pull off if he TRIES.

Star Andy Lau is the only actor that is given a chance to do good work since the mentioned script problems doesn't apply to his character. I always like it when Andy plays a more quiet and human character like in Running Out Of Time and A Moment Of Romance and we get to see some of that in this movie also. His journey as a character isn't something new but combined with Wong Jing's written character and Andy's performance, there's sympathy and humanity created in King. The other cast including Nick Cheung, Athena Chu and Waise Lee are your typical stock characters and is only really as good as the script allows them to be. I do think Nick did what he could and came off as less annoying in terms of whacky sidekicks to the hero.

The Conman 1999 was still a minor surprise coming from Wong Jing. I don't think he'll ever tone down the aspects that made him 'famous' so this is probably as good as we'll see him do these days.

The DVD:

Mei Ah presents the movie in it's original 1.85.1 aspect ratio and this is a very good effort from Mei Ah. The transfer shows off the cinematography to good effect with good detail and vivid colours. Print damage is also minimal. Now if only they would do more anamorphically enchanced releases of fairly new movies like this.

We get Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 options in Cantonese and Mandarin. The 2.0 track stays quite centered the entire movie with only some music cues using the front and surround speakers. When music does spread out, the dialogue almost gets drowned out but thankfully this doesn't occur frequently.

The English subtitles are also very good with minimal spelling and grammar errors. Korean, Bahasa Malaysian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Spanish, simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese subtitles are also selectable.

Mei Ah's Data Bank houses the plot synopsis and a cast & crew listing. Trailers for this movie and Prince Charming finishes off this extras thin disc.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson