In a nutshell, “The Conman” is not for everybody – but it’s a must-see for any student of 80s to 90s Hong Kong/Asian cinema. 1998’s “The Conman” is legendary director Wong Jing’s direct follow-up to the “God of Gamblers” series, a five-part action-comedy narrative that started back in 1989 and has birthed various other sequels and spin-offs since.
It was made during what many consider to be the golden age of Hong Kong cinema, part of a series that was initially responsible for jump-starting the international film career of Chow Yun-fat. Although the original Chinese name of the movie is actually “Knights of Gamblers,” which suggests that lead actor Andy Lau reprises his “God of Gamblers” role as the “Knight of Gamblers,” he actually plays a different character in this movie, albeit one with many similarities to his former Wong Jing-directed character.
This time around, Lau plays King, a master card player who goes to prison and is forced to learn everything he can about horse racing. After King’s pregnant wife finds out that he’s cheating on her, she promptly leaves his side. Devastated but still constantly looking to score it big, King sets up a rigged game using a videotape and his own sleight-of-hand mastery, which unfortunately culminates in him accidentally stabbing mob boss Bad Temper to death. This is what sends him to prison where he learns about horse racing, skills which he then uses outside prison with co-star Nick Cheung who plays Dragon. King is then caught in a romance with Dragon’s sister, Ching, and the three are thrust into an elaborate plot to swindle the most renowned sharper around, Macau Mon, all while King yearns and searches for his missing wife and the son he’s never seen.
Here’s the tough part: the movie’s plot is highly convoluted. Apart from that, fans of the “Gods of Gamblers” series will no doubt yearn for some continuity between the beloved series and “The Conman,” which is nowhere to be found. Instead, “Gods of Gamblers” director Wong Jing chooses this point in his career to portray casino games in a straightforward manner, without the characteristic humor that has come to define his past work. Despite all this, Andy Lau’s charismatic presence manages to still come through onscreen, promptly aided by Nick Cheung and Wong Jing’s own comedic appearances. So while it’s not for everybody, “The Conman” remains to be a must-see movie, not just for fans of Wong Jing, but also for fans of Hong Kong’s golden age of cinema, as well as for any fan of the elaborate casino heist.
In fact, one reason why “The Conman” still retains classic status is the popularity of casinos and similar forms of gaming in Asia, making the setting familiar and highly relatable to its target audience. Although there aren’t any casinos within Hong Kong itself due to administrative regulations, it has become a popular jump-off point for those planning to spend time in neighboring Macau’s many luxurious casinos. Other countries that offer great casino experiences include Vietnam and Singapore. As indicated on Expatbets’ guide to Vietnam casinos, there are over 30 land-based casinos in the country. And while there are only two casinos in Singapore, their casino revenue places the small financial center consistently in the top ten list of the most popular casino destinations on the planet. In short, Asia is absolutely no stranger to the casino scene, which makes “The Conman” and its take on the elaborate heist all the more palatable for Asian audiences. So while “The Conman” fails to check all boxes, it rightly retains its place in the annals of Hong Kong’s golden age of cinema, an indelible mark in the country’s history of cinematic storytelling.
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