Godfather of Chinese gambling films Wong Jing has another up his sleeve
Wong Jing, the godfather of Chinese gambling movies, returns for another roll of the dice, writes Edmund Lee
Wong Jing is well aware of the irony of his own success. As a prudent businessman and one of Hong Kong's highest-grossing filmmakers of the past three decades, the 58-year-old has been profiting from an oeuvre that's coloured by the very vice that he mocks and yet was inadvertently born into - gambling.
"The reason I took gambling as my theme is very simple," says Wong during an interview to promote his latest film, From Vegas to Macau. "I grew up in just such an environment: my mother gambled a lot when I was a kid. She always asked me to throw the dice or bet on dogs and horses for her."
He became "a punter" when he made friends with a horseracing gambler in his first year of college at the age of 19.
Ever since, going right back to his very first film, Challenge of the Gamesters (1981) starring Patrick Tse Yin, the theme of gambling has never been far from Wong's critically divisive yet profitable career.
"I'm not a gambler," says the writer-director firmly. "I don't have an addiction. I can stop gambling any time.
"But when I watch others gamble it's just fascinating."
Wong explains: "It's like: 'Oh wait, you're so nice to everyone in your daily life and yet you're so mean at the gambling table!' Or 'You're trying so very hard to take my money - are you for real?'
"There are people who remain clueless even after they've lost money.
"I had a classmate who gambled like there's no tomorrow when he was only 16 or 17. I was really puzzled by his behaviour, and then he told me: 'That's exactly the point - gambling is most exciting when a person simply can't afford to lose.' I find these gamblers' minds very interesting."
As the filmmaker who almost single-handedly established and popularised the Chinese gambling movie sub-genre, Wong can rightly take pride in turning out one undisputed classic - 1989's God of Gamblers. He made stars out of his gambler protagonists, played by Chow Yun-fat, Andy Lau Tak-wah, Stephen Chow Sing-chi and Nick Cheung Ka-fai.
From Vegas to Macau marks Chow Yun-fat's return to the gambling table after the immense success of God of Gamblers and its 1994 sequel, God of Gamblers Return. Having been close friends since they started their careers in their early 20s, the director and star most recently collaborated on The Last Tycoon (2012). The crime-thriller distantly evoked Chow's days in the popular 1980s TV series The Bund.
"I already thought very highly of Chow when we were both newcomers," Wong says. "Since my father is [the late renowned director] Wong Tin-lam, sometimes Chow would ask me for advice.
"We went on to make our own careers since but our paths would occasionally cross. We made [at least five] TV dramas together. Then we also worked on The Romancing Star (1987) and the two God of Gamblers movies.
"After collaborating so many times, I have a very good understanding of Chow's acting method and potential. I make use of my past insight - of his tricks and his best qualities - when we work on new projects. That's why every film we have made together has been very successful."
With From Vegas to Macau, Wong has come full circle in more ways than one. Andrew Lau - the producer for both The Last Tycoon and this film - is a friend and long-time collaborator, while Chow's co-star, Nicholas Tse, is the son of Patrick Tse - the gambling hero of Wong's feature debut.
From Vegas to Macau was initially written as a tragedy, in which Chow and Tse would play father and son.
"Gradually, however, we realised we're probably going to release the movie during the Lunar New Year - and it didn't seem like the smartest decision to open with a tragedy around that period," says Wong.
After going through six more rewrites, his film has now become an action-comedy.
Chow plays a legendary gambler who has recently retired as a casino security consultant in Las Vegas and moved back to his Macau hometown, while Tse and Chapman To Man-chak play the requisite, unassuming good kids who desperately want to become the master's protégés.
Wong champions Norman Jewison's classic The Cincinnati Kid (1965) as "the gambling movie bible" he repeatedly returns to for inspiration. Despite this - and the vaguely familiar character settings of his latest film - he asserts that the one filmmaking principle he adheres to is that "movies must reflect the audience's values in the era they are released".
"When I made God of Gamblers, it was before the handover and the mentalitywas that of the end of an era," Wong says.
"People wished for the presence of superheroes who were autonomous, rich and famous. That's why it worked at the time.
"[The hero] was a wealthy master gambler who would go as far as to bet his life against yours - just to win a billion dollars back and see his opponent lose.
"That was the mentality then. There were also lots of hoodlums and triad people at the Macau casinos - it was a pretty scary scene.
"But now, more than 20 years after God of Gamblers 2, Macau is actually no different from Las Vegas. Families travel there for their holidays, watching the best shows and eating the best food. That's how it is now.
"The values have all changed - and so we need a new and more modern hero for the casino city."
Reflecting on his decades of experience in making gambling movies, Wong still vividly recalls the eight months it took him to develop and release 1989's Casino Raiders, the film that essentially defined his winning filmmaking formula.
"When I was making that film, I witnessed the many sides of human nature," he says.
"I saw these gambling zombies. They're people who took all their money to the casino and just threw it all away. They kept betting even though they had no feasible plans to win anything back. People could get like that, being completely hypnotised by the atmosphere [of the casino]."
Does the godfather of Chinese gambling movies feel like dishing out a moral lesson or two to his loyal audience?
"There's no need for me to be critical of their behaviour," Wong says. "The dumb people will lose money and the smart people will win money - because the really clever ones will definitely not gamble all the time. Those who treat gambling as their main profession must be plain stupid."
From Vegas to Macau opens on Thursday