There’s a long history of poker playing a major part in cinema from all round the world. Of course, the first examples that you think of tend to be from Hollywood movies like The Cincinnati Kid and Cool Hand Luke.
But Asian cinema also has a long tradition of using this most cinematic of card games in its movies. After all, it offers writers and directors all the same benefits as it does in the West. These include the huge scope for showing conflict between two characters – never better used on screen than in the classic encounter between Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Le Chiffre played by Mads Mikkelson in the 2006 version of Casino Royale. It’s also a game in which the palpable tension can add hugely to the atmosphere of a film as we, the audience, hold our breath as each player’s hand is revealed.
With the new focus on Asian cinema, thanks to the incredible success of Parasite at the Oscars in February, now may be when the rest of the world starts to discover these three films which also use poker as major drivers in their plots.
God of Gamblers
Released in 1989 and written and directed by Wong Jing, God of Gamblers stars Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau.
In the movie, Chow Yun-fat plays Ko Chun, a famous games player and so-called “God of Gamblers”. At the start of the film, he arrives in Tokyo for a planned game against another renowned player called Tanaka who he easily defeats. Relations are still good between the two and Tanaka asks Ko Chun to help him bring down Chan Kam-Sing, a man who had cheated his father and drove him to death.
But, before he can have the game, Ko Chun suffer an accident that makes him lose his memory, as well as his poker playing ability. In the nick of time, he regains his faculties and is able to take on Chan Kam-Sing in a high stakes poker game on his luxury yacht. Even though the so-called “Demon of Gamblers” is cheating by using marked cards, Ko Chun still manages to prevail and saves the day.
The film wasn’t just an immediate success. It also spawned a long series of sequels, spin-offs and even parodies. And, although the original cast was never fully reunited at any of these poker movies, all contained the same great mix of tension, drama and an element of comedy too.
Vegas to Macau
This is one of the films that can rightly be considered as a spinoff of God of Gamblers as Chow Yun-fat reappears as Ko Chun in a surprise twist at the end. In keeping with most films of this kind, the plot is a long and convoluted one.
At its start, we meet a gang dedicated to stealing from gangsters and redistributing their wealth. Led by a character called Benz and assisted by his son Cool and nephew Ngau-Ngau, the gang are, unknowingly, being spied on by a ruthless underworld gang leader called Mr Ko.
Benz becomes aware of this and enlists the help of a friend called Ken who he hopes will help him take down the gang leader with his card-playing skills. But before the meeting can be set up, Ko arranges for Benz to be beaten, after which he is left in a coma. Nevertheless, Ken goes ahead and gets the better of Mr Ko.
The twist comes at the end of the movie when Cool is introduced to a mystery man during the Lunar New Year who agrees to take him on as a disciple – and then reveals himself as God of Gamblers.
There then follow not one but two sequels with the most recent being released to coincide with the Chinese New Year in 2016 and which brought the total box office receipts for the whole series up to around $400 million.
Last, but by no means least, there’s this 2009 movie co-written and directed by Chan Hing-Kai and Janet Chun which starred Louis Koo and Sean Lau.
Louis Koo plays Jack, the wayward sone of a casino owner who has been in exile in Canada. Following his father’s death, he returns to Macau to discover a disreputable rival called Uno (Lau Ching Wan) is hoping to prove he is too incompetent to take over the business and grab it for himself.
Jack, however, helped by his girlfriend Smiley, starts to make a name for himself around the casinos of Macau as a great poker player. So it’s agreed that he should take on Uno in a winner-takes-all contest for control of his deceased father’s casino.
The game could not be tenser and is decided on the finest of margins when it reaches its climax. Jack wins and the animosity that Uno has felt towards him evaporates. When Jack takes control, he rewards Uno by making him CEO of the business to allow him to concentrate on his poker playing.
As to which of these is the best poker movie, all have their strong points. For example, God of Gamblers has a very high rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the Vegas to Macau series did brilliantly at the box office and Poker King has perhaps the most realistic depiction of the game – and, for this, it has to be the ultimate winner.