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Poker King
Louis Koo and Stephy Tang in Poker King     Lau Ching-Wan in Poker King

(left) Louis Koo and Stephy Tang try their luck, and (right) Lau Ching-Wan antes up in Poker King.


Year: 2009
Director: Chan Hing-Kai, Janet Chun Siu-Jan
Producer: Chan Hing-Kai, Amy Chin Siu-Wai
Cast: Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo Tin-Lok, Stephy Tang Lai-Yun, Cherrie Ying Choi-Yi, Josie Ho Chiu-Yi, Jo Koo, Kama, Wong Yau-Nam, Jacky Heung Cho, Lam Suet, Eddie Cheung Siu-Fai, Joe Cheung Tung-Cho, Hiro Hayama, Rose Chan Ka-Woon, Sammy Sum Chun-Hin
The Skinny:

Messy, overlong, oddly directed and yet still somewhat entertaining. A nostalgic genre and good stars make Poker King fun commercial silliness, though you'll have to wade through some interminable and middling stuff to get to it. Some alcohol and a fast-forward button would surely help the experience.

by Kozo:

Poker King ain't great, but at least it seems more like a Hong Kong movie than most of the stuff that gets made nowadays. The La Lingerie team of Chan Hing-Ka and Janet Chun co-directed this nostalgic star vehicle, loaded with gambling scenes, silly overacting, and more face time for its photogenic stars than any film truly needs. The trade-off: a coherent or convincing storyline and characters that make sense. Really, if one were to give their full critical appraisal of Poker King, then "crap" is probably one of the likely words you'd hear. However, Poker King does live up to its populist expectations, and amuses in that cheesy, lets-not-take-ourselves-too-seriously way that Hong Kong Cinema was once famous for. People seeking a quality experience will not be happy with this trashy commercial film, but just as many people will be sufficiently amused. That's just how these things work.

Hong Kong Cinema's go-to leading man Louis Koo stars as Jack Chang, heir to a massive gambling empire in Macau. However, Jack is not on good terms with the family, having exiled himself to Canada where he excels at making money with online poker. After his father's passing Jack is called back to Macau by Uno Cheuk (Lau Ching-Wan), the snarky and arrogant company president, who proceeds to let everyone know just how ill-equipped Jack is to manage the company business. He's not wrong; Jack is immature and a bit prissy, and sometimes talks like a silly child. Louis Koo is a very self-effacing actor, and that trait serves him well as the socially awkward Jack. Too bad his character can be so annoying, and his childish gusto is sometimes matched and even surpassed by Lau Ching-Wan, who resorts to mugging and baby talk in order to put Jack in his place. He succeeds, but does a good job of making himself look bad too. That's easy to do when you act like a four year-old.

Actors acting like little kids has long been a staple of commercial Hong Kong comedies, and indeed, Stephen Chow once made his name with similar performances. Assuming their behavior doesn't give you hives, then there's nothing really wrong with the actors. However, the uneven direction is a problem; pacing is sometimes unbearably slow, with long pauses during conversations that magnify the actors' puerile behavior. Poker King would be better if it were snappier or wittier, but Chan Hing-Ka and Janet Chun don't go for economy or wit, choosing instead for scenes that sometimes distract in just how long they stretch out. On the plus side, the directors don't handle things in as crass or obnoxious a manner as Wong Jing would. The negative, however, is that the film lacks energy and sometimes even bores. Maybe one of Chan Hing-Ka's previous co-directors, i.e. Patrick Leung or Dante Lam, could have helped out there.

In the absence of narrative pacing, we get selling points designed to placate specific interest groups. Nowadays, big budgets and Hollywood-level gloss are in vogue, and Poker King satisfies this new populist aesthetic with fine production values that approach, but don't match those of Andy Lau's Macau-set Look For a Star. People who wish to sightsee in Macau especially in its opulent casinos - can get some easy enjoyment out of Poker King, and Texas Hold 'em fans may be amused too. The poker scenes manage accuracy if not suspense, with a whole subplot devoted to Jack's inability to bluff people at live poker. There's some real strategy mixed in with the perfunctory gambling stuff, so people who know all about blinds, the turn and the river may get their jollies. There's even a gratuitous cameo from 10-time world champion poker player and Guangzhou native Johnny Chan. The cameo makes next to no sense, and is actually a little disturbing because Chan basically appears and then walks off into the sunset with a pair of young lovers like he's tagging along on their date. Still, the filmmakers did this for diehard gambling fans - so hey, gambling fans, please appreciate it.

Also likely to be pleased are red-blooded audience members. Fans of the boys get Louis Koo in a bare-chested bath scene, plus Lau Ching-Wan doing a loutish-and-lusty seduction on Josie Ho, who plays his hot-and-bothered business rival. Fans of the girls get even more: Poker King serves up Cherrie Ying in shorts and off-shoulder garments, Jo Koo in chest-emphasizing tops, and up-and-coming leng mo Kama as Lucky, the card-dealing love interest for poor baker Sean (Wong Yau-Nam). Besides baking a mean almond cookie, Sean becomes Jack's personal assistant when Jack challenges Uno Cheuk, righteously deciding to win back what's rightfully his in a winner-take-all poker match. This rivalry serves yet another portion of the viewing audience: people who enjoy movies where two charismatic male leads passionately compete while barely containing their obvious homoerotic attraction. Longtime screen partners Lau Ching-Wan and Louis Koo don't shy away from making smoldering eyes at one another, so proponents of slash fiction get theirs too.

Who isn't served by the above: fans of coherent cinema or logical stories. Poker King ditches actual storytelling for minor comic vignettes and a meandering plotline that stretches out to a needless two hours. That's 30 more minutes than should be necessary, but taken in bits, Poker King can be amusing. The poker and the shtick are part of it, but it's mostly down to the actors. In between mugging sessions, Lau Ching-Wan and Louis Koo bring solid star presence, and Stephy Tang is super adorable as Smiley, Jack's near-virginal Lady Luck. Despite her character having the apparent maturity of a twelve year-old, Tang has a likable and sweet appeal, and manages to earn sympathy in her romantic rivalry with Cherrie Ying. Also, Lam Suet turns up in a hilarious supporting bit as a Mainland gambler, and Josie Ho and Jo Koo would have to work hard to be unwelcome in any film they appear in. Overall, Poker King isn't much of an improvement on recent genre attempts like My Wife is a Gambling Maestro, but the stars are bigger, the production values better and well, it really feels like a Hong Kong movie. Nowadays, you take what you can get. (Kozo, 2009)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Kam & Ronson
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

image credit: Chinastar Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen