Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Ultimate Winner | 赢家 [ Movie Review ] ★1/2

The Pitch

Back in 1993, Singapore's Mandarin Television channel produced a gambling drama serial called The Unbeatables 双天至尊. It was probably an attempt to copy the wildly successful Hong Kong gambling movies (such as Chow Yun Fatt's God of Gamblers 1989 and Stephen Chow's All for the Winner 1990) into a nightly entertainment for Singapore household.

Even though The Unbeatables' production standard pale in comparison to the Hong Kong counterparts, The Unbeatables was entertaining in it's own right and folks who had seen it might remember it better than the other Singapore television series of those time.

It also starred two of the biggest Singapore television actors, Zoe Tay and Li Nanxing. Both of them went on to star in two sequels of The Unbeatables. After nearly nine years after the last sequel to this gambling televison series, Li Nanxing returned to the gambling world back with The Ultimate Winner. He took on the roles of the director and the leading role. Given his experience with three gambling television series, he might just have an ace in his sleeves.

The Plot

Shi Tian Cai (Li Nanxing) started to gamble at a very young age. His father, a gambling addict had taught him gambling and he managed to master the art of cards counting when he was just a kid. Unfortunately a fire broke out at a gambling den and Tian Cai's father died in that accident.

Years later, Tian Cai is now a professional gambler and a married man with a pregnant wife.  His wife Zhi Hui (Rebecca Lim ) didn't really like him to spend so much time gambling but did nothing to stop him. His contact and link to the high-rollers gambling group would be though Honey (Constance Song), a lady who is swooning over Tian Cai. Soon Tian Cai's gambling talent gained the attention of Champion Li (Aaron Chen) a Taiwanese tycoon who is interested in Honey. A showdown between the rich and the talented would eventually happen.

The Perspective

The Ultimate Winner is naively bad in so many ways. In movies where the story is king, the story telling aspect falters so badly that it felt like a train wreck.

Let's start with the characterization. It makes one wonder how can a skilled gambler like Tian Cai be so tactless and unobservant to his wife's displeasure with his gambling. We get quite a few scenes of Tian Cai showing off presenting his winnings to his wife which resulted in scenes that she didn't like it and/or kicking a big fuss about it. Wouldn't it be wiser if he just quietly banked in those cheques and subtly provide money for households at times which are more advantageous to him?

Then there are moments when Honey asked Tian Cai out to celebrate her birthday after she brought him into a gambling match that helped him win enough money to save his brother in law. Even though she got a thing for him, wouldn't it be out of courtesy to oblige someone who just did a big favor for you? This movie just went on showing how Tian Cai had a home cooked meal with his wife and seemly forgotten about the appointment.

This movie is filled with plenty of such weak characterization and there's simply no traction for these characters. When you don't care about the characters, the story would just feel like a drag.

The next issue would be the gambling aspect. When we go to a gambling movie, we expect to see some nifty gambling choreography and intense gambling standoff resulting in satisfying payout. The Ultimate Winner had none of that. It's been reported that Li Nanxing who had learned a few tricks during his time in The Unbeatable series, was the choreographer for the gambling scenes. It showed that he probably learned some very basic moves and there really nothing here that we had not seen back in the eighties and nineties.

The gambling rivalry and standoff in The Ultimate Winner were a joke. Suffering from weak characterization and poor plotting, there's no tension to speak off. Tian Cai who seemed to possessed cards counting skills, suddenly became a person who relied on luck. The climatic revelation was such a bad joke. Asked yourself, if you are to pick four of the biggest cards out from a deck, which would you pick? Guess which set did Tian Cai picked before Champion Li? I am not sure why no one in this movie production actually pointed out to the director that it's really a stupid way to end a gambling movie.

The problematic issues that The Ultimate Winner have might be a result of religious interference. It seemed that Li Nanxing had just recently embraced the Christian faith and it might have interfered with how the characterization and gambling choreography were set up. There might be a unwittingly self censorship to downplay the coolness of gambling but that will be hard to pinpoint down.

But what was evident throughout the movie was the Christian evangelical message. Lots of praying, cell groups and outreach arms to the sky, asking God for help. While there are good movies that promotes the Christian faith, there are bad ones that feel like amateur role play in churches. The Ultimate Winner felt like the latter one. It felt like it's trying desperately to hammer the Christian belief into the viewers. I personally find it a turn off. If you want to preach, do it in a church. Not in a cinema where unsuspecting folks paid money to watch a gambling movie or got the Dvd with the naive impression that this is going to be something like The Unbeatables. 

There are plenty more things that went wrong with this movie. Pointless car chases sequence that's a blatant showcase of expensive sportscars, pointless subplots, terrible choice of character names, sub par acting and many more. The point is that if this is a movie about gambling addiction, it was so badly executed that it's really hard to get the moral of the story. Even though Li Nanxing had years of experience in the acting field, that doesn't mean that he can be a good directer. In fact, he needs a good director to direct his performance and perhaps a dubbing artist to do a voiceover for him (like they used to do in older Singapore television series). It's just unfathomable how a movie made in 2011 could be so lackluster and badly constructed as compared to a 1993 television series.

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