Challenge of the Gamesters
Year of release: 1981
Director: Wong Jing
Stars: Patrick Tse, Wong Yue, Melvin Wong, Chen Kuan-Tai, Chan Shen, Lee Fai-Wong, Wong Jing
Not rated; contains II-level violence and nudity
Version reviewed: Celestial VCD
Love him or hate him, you cannot deny the impact Wong Jing has had on Hong Kong cinema over the past twenty years. At one point, nearly a third of the films coming out of HK yearly had Wong's touch on them in some way, be it as a producer, writer, director or actor. And it all got its' start with this film. Even at this early stage, Wong had all the pieces in place that would bring him both box office success and critical revulsion over the next two decades.
Challenge of the Gamesters is a prequel to the popular TV miniseries "The Shell Game" (which Wong himself wrote, with his father Wong Tin-Lam handling the directing duties). It tells the story of Lo Sei-Hoi (Patrick Tse), a master gambler who is hired by the government to investigate Zhang Lie (Chen Kuan-Tai), whom they believe is selling secrets to the Japanese. Along with his protoge Lei Li (Wong Yue), Lo crafts a daring plan to infiltrate Zhang's house in order to get into a seemingly inpenetrable safe to rescue some valuable documents.
As I stated before, even this early in his career, Wong already seemed to have come up with a winning formula. The film opens with a great gambling sequence and rarely lets up from there. Wong's "blitzkrieg" style is in full effect here, rarely allowing the viewer to catch their breath -- and perhaps see some of the flaws in the story, such as the nearly-improbable plan Lo hatches to get the documents, which involves creating a perfect replica of Zhang's house, right down to a cracked ashtray.
During its' running time, Challenge of the Gamesters dumps nearly every genre into the mix, from action to drama to comedy to romance, but somehow Wong manages to make them all hold together, even when things get a bit silly, like when a group of thugs are used for a game of human billiards. Of course, a Wong Jing movie wouldn't be complete without some blood and boobs, and he delivers those as well, though admittedly not to the level of some of his more contemporary works like Naked Killer. There are also a lot of small details which would come into later Wong productions, such as Lo's deadly talents with throwing cards.
The early 1980's were a period of great change in Hong Kong cinema, with the "new wave" directors like Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam starting to make their mark. Even though he took a more tradtional route into the HK film world, Wong Jing would also come to revolutionize the industry. Though his movies are hated by many, at their core, they are soildly made pieces of escapist fluff, as evidenced with Challenge of the Gamesters. Even though it is over the top in many parts, it does its' job by providing the audience with ninety minutes of entertainment.
Perhaps that is the key to Wong's continued success. While many directors craft overly "arty" films or bottom of the barrel low-budget crap, Wong's films hit a nice middle ground. Yes, there is a good deal of bloodshed and talk of bodily functions, but the movies themselves are technically sound and well-written. It is quite a testament to Wong's talent that his very first film, made over twenty years ago, can stand up to (and surpass) much of today's output. Those wanting to get a bit of a Hong Kong film history lesson while having fun doing it would be well-advised to check out Challenge of the Gamesters.
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