A precursor to the gambling genre of Hong Kong films immortalized by God of Gamblers, this Shaw Brothers classic takes a serious turn in the genre driven by a villainous performance from kung fu legend Chen Kuan-Tai.
In the course of ten years, Peng Tianshi has gone from a country bumpkin from Guilun to a master gambler and swindler in Hong Kong. He runs a casino where he tends to swindle money from the customers and when he finds himself outwitted, he takes matters by force to get the money back. When a former adversary returns and helps a couple win their wedding money back with his master skills of hearing dice, Peng resorts to making sure the man suffers.
The blinding and framing of the old man starts a war with the Sha family, who for centuries were the first to create and master gambling as a means to stop corrupt officials. The latest generation involves young Sha Tong, who has also mastered the art of hearing dice and when he also outwits Peng, the unscrupulous swindler resorts to beating Tong up to retrieve the money. Under the tutelage of the veteran Quanli, Tong’s grandfather, as well as other family members, Tong begins to train hard as well as take an assignment to get to Peng. This ultimately causes a showdown like no other as Tong and Peng will settle the score on the only battlefield they know: the card table.
While 1989’s God of Gamblers will be the pioneer of the gambling comedy film that was one of the major crazes in Hong Kong cinema, it is truly not one of the first films to tackle gambling in general. One of the first gambling comedies may actually be the 1974 Golden Harvest classic Games Gamblers Play featuring the Hui Brothers This Shaw Brothers classic from director Cheng Kang (father of legendary action specialist Tony Ching Siu-Tung) is one of the first films to tackle the gambling genre and takes it to a more serious tone. This classic film replaces kung fu with card playing and dice playing and it’s quite a good film.
Chen Kuan-Tai, a kung fu legend, is given a chance to show a different type of role and we do not get to see him break out the shapes. Instead, he plays the villainous swindler who starts a war due to his greedy manner. Chen gives a great performance as Peng, who perhaps due to his upbringing starts out as a bumpkin turned powerful man, having the money, power, and reputation. Ma Chien-Tang is quite the annoyance as Peng’s brother-in-law, who basically not only serves as a lapdog but also is Peng’s eavesdropper who intends to make sure Peng gets what he thinks he deserves.
Tsung Hua, another kung fu star for Shaw Brothers, doesn’t get to showcase any fight skills, but does quite well as the righteous Sha Tong, who learns the various tricks and skills of gambling as a means to make sure the ones who have been wronged get what they deserve. Sha is considered a Robin Hood-like figure and instead of a band of merry men, he has his family as his partners due to their historic reputation. Fan Mei-Sheng and Shut Chung-Tin provide ample support as a brother and their grandfather, who is a master in the art of gambling.
The story itself, written by Sha Tsai-Chuen, may seem slow paced with a near two hour running time. However, the story is well paced with lads of twists and turns that drive the story even more, all culminating in two showdowns between Peng and Sha. It is clear that the gambling antics of this film would influence Wong Jing, who would later become Hong Kong’s “gambling godfather” with his directing (and sometimes appearing as villain) of many gambling comedies in 1990’s Hong Kong cinema, with the likes of Chow Yun-Fat, Stephen Chow, Andy Lau, and Nick Cheung as the four “gambling kings” of the genre.
King Gambler is truly a wonderfully made precursor to the Hong Kong gambling genre boom. The story is well done and Tsung Hua makes for a righteous trickster and Chen Kuan-Tai playing a worthy greedy adversary. A recommendation for fans of both Shaw Brothers and gambling films.
WFG RATING: A-
A Shaw Brothers (HK) Ltd. Production. Director: Cheng Kang. Producer: Runme Shaw. Writer: Sha Tsai-Chuen. Cinematography: Wu Cho-Hui and Cheung Tak-Wai. Editing: Chiang Hsing-Lung and Henry Cheung.
Cast: Tsung Hua, Chen Kuan-Tai, Chen Ping, Shut Chung-Tin, Ouyang Shafei, Wang Hsieh, Ku Feng, Fan Mei-Sheng, A Mei-Na, Ku Wen-Chung.