King Gambler [賭王大騙局] (1976)

Starring Chung Wah, Chen Kuan-Tai, Chen Ping, Shut Chung-Tin, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Wang Hsieh, Ku Feng, Fan Mei-Sheng, Teresa Ha Ping, Chui Ga-Lam, Wong Chung, A Mei-Na, Chan Mei-Hua, Liu Wu-Chi, Ma Chien-Tang, Chan Shen, Kong Yeung, Ku Wen-Chung, Terry Lau Wai-Yue, Ling Yun, Shum Lo, Yeung Chi-Hing, Cheng Miu, Wong Ching-Ho, Lau Luk-Wah

Directed by Cheng Kang

Expectations: Super excited to see more Cheng Kang… and it’s a gambling movie!

There are many gambling movies from all over the world, but the Hong Kong gambling film is a beast all its own. I am a huge fan of this sub-genre of Hong Kong cinema, and of the filmmaker most associated with it: Wong Jing. Over the course of my chronological Shaw Brothers series, I’ve covered a couple of early gambling films (The Casino, The Gambling Syndicate), but those films feel like extensions of the traditional action genre more than they resemble what the gambling genre evolved into. King Gambler, on the other hand, is right on the money when it comes to tone and style. The film was clearly an influence on Wong Jing, as both directors showcase similar ideas and sensibilities in how they portray gambling and the people involved in the games. As such, I really enjoyed Cheng Kang’s King Gambler. Apparently 1976 Hong Kong shared my enthusiasm, too, because the film made #9 at the yearly box office (with only a couple of Shaw films doing better that year).

King Gambler is a structurally interesting movie. It begins by introducing us to the Sha family and how their mastery in sleight of hand and other forms of trickery were passed down from one generation to another. We then see a short game of mahjong, in which one of the Sha family members (played by Shut Chung-Tin) beats the young Peng Tian Shi (Chen Kuan-Tai). The resentment of being so resoundingly beaten does not sit well with Peng, and when the film flashes forward many years, Peng is now a wealthy casino owner known as The Card Tyrant. He has not risen above his feelings surrounding the Sha family, though. Peng offers an elder Sha (Wang Hsieh) a job, but he refuses to use his superior hearing skills to cheat for Peng. Retaliation comes swift and brutal, leaving the elder Sha permanently blinded. This is merely the first few minutes of the film; the prologue. The majority of the movie concerns itself with the young members of the Sha family and how they deal with Peng in the wake of this offense.

The film is broken up into sections with title cards such as: “Scene No. 1 – Trick of Tricks” or “Scene No. 3 – Crook of Crooks,” etc. Each of these sections shows a con that the Sha family pulls on Peng. Different members of the Sha family possess different strengths, and each of them is employed to undermine Peng and systematically break down all of his defenses and buffers. It’s similar to a heist film, but instead it’s a grand swindle in the name of revenge. It is not enough to simply kill Peng or beat him up, they intend to strip his entire life away from him in as many aspects as possible. Many of Wong Jing’s gambling films are ultimately about this sort of thing as well, but in his films the grand swindle is generally hidden until the end of the film (for the most part). Cheng Kang revels in it, allowing the audience to come along for the ride to serve up cold, calculated revenge.

Being in on it all robs the film of the natural tension you’d usually see in something like this, especially if you’re familiar with a lot of the gambling film set-ups and tropes. It’s important to remember two things, though. The first is that in 1976 many of these tropes were still brand new and fresh to the genre. The second is that the tone of the film does not require the natural tension to succeed. They may be systematically destroying Peng, but they’re doing so jovially and with assured ease. They play him and his associates like skilled jazz musicians running through scales. No matter how serious King Gambler gets at times, it is a light, fun-filled film. The swing between dramatic and comedic tones is never as wild as in a Wong Jing film, but it is there, it is intentional, and it is pure Hong Kong fun. When thrilling tension is required (such as during the film’s brilliant denouement), it is present in spades. The film does run a bit long at 119 minutes, but the power and energy of the finale’s tension obliterated any concerns I had about the film’s length. It is a tour-de-force of gambling filmmaking, providing a basic framework that is still the backbone of the genre.

King Gambler does not showcase any martial arts to speak of, and the action it does have is mostly of the card or mahjong tile variety, but I’m glad I reviewed the film in its contextual place in the Shaw catalog. It’s an important film in the gambling genre, it was a big hit, and it’s just a great film. If you enjoy Hong Kong gambling films, King Gambler is a definite must see.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Temple! See ya then!