Director: Li Nanxing
Cast: Li Nanxing, Aaron Chen, Constance Song, Honey Ma, Rebecca Lim, Dai Yang Tian, Zheng Ge Ping, Datok Ong, Rayson Tan, Phyllis Quek, Huang Shi Nan
RunTime: 1 hr 40 mins
Released By: GV
Rating: PG (Gambling Theme)
Opening Day: 14 April 2011
Shin Tian Cai since young was very much influenced by his gambling addicted father. He was known among his peers to be the junior gambling king. When he was 8 years old, his father died in a fire leaving behind Tian Cai to fend for himself.
As years go by…
Tian Cai got married to Zhi Hui who is about to give birth. Tian Cai gambled to support his family and he believes that through gambling he would make himself rich. Tian Cai contacted Honey, who is a junket and has a deep admiration for Tian Cai, in hope that she will be able to introduce him into the high-rollers gambling circle. In order to impress and get closer to Tian Cai, Honey introduced him to high-stakes games. With Tian Cai’s innate gambling instinct and talent, he managed to make a huge windfall. Tian Cai’s talent in the gambling meets has generated envy and hatred from a Taiwanese tycoon Li Guan Jun. Each step that Tian Cai takes, is bringing him closer to his nemesis….
Perhaps the most memorable role of veteran TV actor Li Nanxing’s career is that opposite Zoe Tay’s Luo Qifang as the professional gambler Yan Fei in “The Unbeatables”, and it seems befitting therefore that his big-screen acting and directorial debut would again revolve around the theme of gambling. The subject is also a deeply personal one for the star, given his revelations last year about his own difficulties with gambling and debt after a business venture went awry in the late 1990s.
This movie therefore comes even more eagerly anticipated especially for fans of Nanxing, who are raring to see him reprise his suave and debonair persona in the TV series. Nevertheless, it’s best to temper your expectations beforehand, for despite the thematic similarities, you won’t get to see Nanxing in full “Unbeatables” glory. For one, the stakes are much lower since there is no competition for some title; for another, this is yet another cautionary tale of gambling.
Like last year’s “Happy Go Lucky”- hands down the most god-awful local movie of the year- “The Ultimate Winner” arms itself with a social cause, that of casting light on the seemingly insidious lure of gambling for addicts and the subsequent ill consequences on family and other relationships- which by extension compels the film to downplay the glories of winning. The association between the two films isn’t in itself a bad thing, except that both movies are scripted by the same person- Harry Yap. While this latest is certainly much better than his previous, Yap’s writing still leaves much to be desired.
Those who have had the misfortune of seeing his former will recognise the same faults in both, beginning with an utter lack of character development. Supporting characters are uniformly one-note- Rebecca Lim’s Zhi Hui is the long-suffering wife of a gambling addict; Constance Song’s Honey Ma is the rich businesswoman who has an unrequited love for Nanxing’s Tian Cai; and Dai Yang Tian is the personal assistant to rich tycoon Champion Lee (Aaron Chan) with a knack for gambling. There’s little more to these characters beyond what has been described above, and little more you’ll know about them at the end of the movie than when they first appear.
But most unfortunate is the poor characterisation of even its lead, Tian Cai (yes, Nanxing’s character), who comes off equally shallow as little more than a good guy with a gambling habit inherited from his father. So decent is he that his worst indulgence appears to be buying a new sports car with his newfound gambling riches and almost knocking down his daughter while picking her up from kindergarten- perhaps the only message hardcore gamblers can glean from this is to drive slower along small roads?
If Tian Cai isn’t an interesting character to begin with, the same can also be said about the poorly fleshed out relationships that he has with the other characters. Why would Zhi Hui, given her aversion to gambling, marry a pervasive gambler like Tian Cai in the first place? Why would Honey Ma fall in love with someone as nondescript as Tian Cai and better still, persist in her love for him when men of her stature like Champion come knocking? Little explanation is given for either, and the failure of the former is especially fatal for the film’s attempt to portray the ill-effects of gambling on family- how are we to believe that Tian Cai’s gambling was what tore his and Zhi Hui’s marriage apart when we can’t be convinced of their love for each other?
Because it has somehow deluded itself that it is a character-driven drama, not enough thought has been given to its plot, which unfolds in three equally weak acts. A supposed emotional twist that leads to the conclusion of act one and the temporary reform of Tian Cai’s gambling habit is laughable; another supposed emotional twist in the second act (involving a suicidal Rayson Tan) strains credibility; and finally, the supposed showdown between Tian Cai and the tycoon Champion amounts to a storm in a teacup. As if fearful that the climactic gambling match may leave viewers wanting more, there is a- actually make that two- last-minute twists right before the end that are just plain dumb.
To be sure, Li Nanxing reveals a good ability at staging scenes- the first third of the movie before the plot and characterisation gives way trots along with a sure and steady hand; and the car racing sequences along the streets of Chinatown and the Esplanade Bridge look impressive. But even his best efforts can’t redeem the bad scriptwriting, and the faults of the movie become only more obvious as it plods to its end.
More disturbing however is Nanxing’s obvious attempt to turn this movie into an exercise in evangelism. There are far more Christian references here than this reviewer was comfortable with- including characters talking about “God and His love”, multiple shots of a huge cross that is part of the façade of a church Zhi Hui and her sister and brother-in-law attend, and also several shots of people clasping their hands in prayer. The unambiguous subtext here is that Tian Cai found his way out of gambling and back on the right path through Christianity (seeing as how Tian Cai is seen in the movie refusing to embrace the faith, sitting outside the Chapel while his wife and daughter are in service inside) and that is bound to be objectionable to some.
Had this movie been positioned as an evangelical movie like “Fireproof” or “Facing the Giants” in the United States, these overt references would probably be more palatable- but to sneak them up on a mainstream audience of different faiths is troubling. The last straw for this reviewer was when the movie concluded with Tian Cai reconciled with his wife Zhi Hui distributing flyers in front of the Toa Payoh Public Library to passers-by, inviting them to join their church. Not to be presumptuous, but it stands to reason if such proselytisation should be allowed in the first place.
It explains however the name of the production company behind this movie, a hitherto-unknown Cornerstone Pictures, the Biblical reference unmistakable. But Christian references aside, this is still a deeply flawed movie that wastes the potential of its actors (especially the renowned “Taiwan Ah Seng” and “Taiwan Thunderbolt Fire” actor Aaron Chen) as well as the expectations of its audience waiting to see an “Unbeatable” comeback from Li Nanxing. It’s no secret that local productions need support from local audiences and critics alike, but there needs to be reason for that support, and “The Ultimate Winner” ultimately offers little.
(Hardly a winner- no thanks to a laughable plot, poorly defined characters and a ill-advised attempt at Christian evangelism)
Review by Gabriel Chong