Winner Takes All! [面懵心精] (1977)
AKA 泥鰍吃猛龍

Starring Richard Ng, Lok Shut, Rosalind Chan Yee-Hing, Tang Ching, Dean Shek Tin, Max Lee Chiu-Chun, To Siu-Ming, Addy Sung Gam-Loi, Lee Hoi-Sang, Ho Pak-Kwong, Karl Maka, Guy Lai Ying-Chau, Hon Kwok-Choi, Sammo Hung, Yue Tau-Wan, Peter Chan Lung, Hsiao Ho

Directed by Karl Maka

Expectations: Excited, but I don’t really know what to expect.

Winner Takes All! was independently produced, but it is the final film of 1977 that I’m covering as part of my chronological Shaw Brothers series. I chose to review it because it was widely successful in 1977, reaching #2 at the Hong Kong Box Office, incorporating comedy and kung fu in a way that would soon sweep the Hong Kong industry with the 1978 release of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. Upon watching Winner Takes All!, though, I realized that its place in Hong Kong cinema history is far greater than simply “doing well at the box office,” as it represents another step in the dominance of Cantonese cinema in the wake of Michael Hui’s successes. In the three years prior to this (1974–1976), a Michael Hui-directed movie — all starring himself and his brothers — dominated the top spot of the Hong Kong box office. Hui would again top the charts in 1978 with The Contract, but he did not release a film in 1977.

Richard Ng is one of Hong Kong’s most famous and recognizable comedians. I’ve seen him in so many movies, it almost feels like he’s always been around. He apparently started on the Hui Brothers TV show in the early ’70s, and received his first major film role in Michael Hui’s 1976 smash-hit The Private Eyes. 1977 was the year Ng was cemented into Hong Kong cinema history, though, as he starred in both the #1 film (John Woo’s The Pilferer’s Progress AKA Money Crazy) and the #2 film, Karl Maka’s Winner Takes All. Like this film, all of Michael Hui’s films were filmed in Cantonese, and along with Chor Yuen’s mega-hits The House of 72 Tenants (1973) and Hong Kong 73 (1974), they were the impetus for the industry to shift towards the Cantonese language. In addition, Hui’s directorial debut, 1974’s Games Gamblers Play, essentially saved Golden Harvest from bankruptcy and paved the way for comedy’s rise as a dominant genre in Hong Kong cinema, both coupled with kung fu and not.

Richard Ng plays a taxi driver who can never catch a break. He is often robbed, to the point that his loved ones have come to expect it. He tells them he was robbed and their response is, “Well… yeah!” His luck changes one evening when he discovers that he holds a winning lottery ticket. His family and friends go out to a dance club to celebrate, only to be robbed by a group of thieves wearing animal masks (led by Dean Shek Tin)… well… yeah! This time, Richard vows to get that ticket back, no matter what he has to do, landing him in the middle of a war between two underworld gangs, and, since this is a comedy, hilarity ensues.

I found Winner Takes All! to be exceptionally funny, not necessarily on the level of the Hui Brothers films from this era, but fairly close. Of course, everyone’s experience will vary, and my undying love for Hong Kong cinema of this era surely helps, but if I were to bet on it I’d say Winner Takes All! — like Hui’s films — is a Hong Kong comedy that could transcend cultural barriers. Of course, Winner Takes All! is hard to find and only survives thanks to a poor quality VHS, so it’s certainly not readily available for everyone to give it a shot. But if they could give it a shot, I imagine people would like it! 😀 Well, I’m just blowing hot air at this point, or whatever the typing equivalent of that is. Typing hot words? I don’t know, but this movie was funny and it has a dope Cantopop theme song, I can definitely say that.

One great source of comedy throughout the film is Richard Ng learning and utilizing hypnotism on various characters. Anyone who’s seen the Lucky Stars movies will know that Ng learning a “supernatural” skill and applying it is a hallmark of those films, and I’ve seen Ng do a similar shtick in other films, too. Perhaps it all began here in Winner Takes All. I don’t remember him doing anything like this in The Private Eyes, but I haven’t seen The Pilferer’s Progress so it’s possibly there or the Hui Brothers TV show is where Ng developed his trademark bit. In any case, the hypnotism is a great running gag throughout the film, culminating in the final fight with Ng believing himself to be Pai Ying’s eunuch character from Dragon Inn, and later Wong Fei-Hung.

Winner Takes All! does feature a number of fight scenes, but all of them are choreographed as a delivery method for the film’s comedy. If you look at the typical kung fu comedy, like Drunken Master or something like that, the fights work on both levels, delivering comedy and high-quality, exciting kung fu simultaneously. That is never the intent here, but since Sammo Hung choreographed everything, the fights are quite enjoyable to watch as a series of comedic movements. The characters are wild and exaggerated, further fortifying the comedy with a wide variety of thrills. Sammo plays a sumo wrestler, Hon Kwok-Choi plays a iron-skinned spiritual boxer, and somehow Richard Ng goes toe-to-toe with them; that’s where the hypnosis comes in! Sammo’s choreography isn’t terribly special here, but the fights move quickly and deliver many laughs, so they definitely do their job.

Winner Takes All! is a hidden gem of 1970s Hong Kong cinema, just waiting for its audience. It’s a product of its times, but it also feels like a proto-’80s Hong Kong action comedy, similar in tone to the Aces Go Places films. It deserves much better than its current obscure status, and while I imagine the elements are long gone and a restoration is nothing more than wishful thinking, I still hold on to some small bit of hope that Winner Takes All! can be rescued one day. Until then, thanks to the bootleggers for keeping its memory alive.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the first film of 1978: Flying Guillotine Part II! But first comes a Top Ten list for 1976–1977 in a few days, and then a few horror reviews for October (if all goes to plan). So see you after all that for Flying Guillotine Part II in November!