Some of you may have heard me talking about how Mediacorp artistes should be given more opportunities to cross over into film, given a ready pool of unpolished stars in the television stable. For every Fann Wong and Zoe Tay headlining a local feature film once in a while, there are plenty of others playing supporting roles in various other projects. While the big wigs representing the female stars have made their mark on film to varying degrees of success, I suppose the time is ripe for who was once Mediacorp's biggest artiste Li Nanxing to finally make that leap of faith, and not only by starring in a film, but to go behind the camera to direct one in his maiden effort too.
And in what better manner than to start off with a film that deals with gambling since one of his most memorable roles on television is that of Yan Fei the gambler that spawned two drama series. That experience tucked behind him also proved to be useful as Li becomes the gambling instructor for this film, which proved to be what's the most exciting part about Ultimate Winner that had a lot of other aspects going against it. The gambling scenes were thankfully interesting enough, no doubt stuffed by caricatures to lend comic relief, sometimes boosted by small visual effects and cheap, simple camera tricks such as speeding up the frame rate to compensate for the dealer's lack of speed. Games are kept extremely easy to guess, and I have to admit I was a little intrigued.
But on the whole, this film seemed like it fell prey to Singapore's strict moral code of conduct. We have casinos, but we cannot advertise them, at least not directly. Our movies can deal with gangsters like The Days, but it will be rated higher than PG which to a local film is box office suicide. To keep things permissable under the PG rating, we have to make our films squeaky clean and have characters with evil thoughts and doing meet their just desserts, and to that effect, is why Ultimate Winner turned out to be on the losing end.
Take for instance the race on our streets between two luxury sports cars. Li Nanxing does have a knack in his vision to shoot something exciting for an audience, and with a competent crew which included a Hong Kong director of photography (Which accounted why this film does have a certain cinematic quality to it than the usual videographic look of say, a Jack Neo film) to boost technical and production quality, but narrative wise, it just had to have the Traffic Police in the way to warn of drink driving and excessive speeding on our roads. What I thought to be the saving grace to this embarrassing narrative development, would be how Foreign Trash think they own our little island since they have direct ties to our Ministers, then yet again being told off by a Sergeant no less, that our politicians are whiter than white, or at least like to distance themselves from such shenanigans.
Or how about a tale about gambling just having to be a cautionary one, where we cannot have our own God of Gamblers equivalent, but being a must to have our gambling protagonist suffer, and hammer home the mantra that even the most skilled (because Li's character Tiancai is nothing more than a card counter and a pattern recognizer with superb memory skills) cannot win the banker, personified by the Taiwanese tycoon Champion Lee (Aaron Chen spending most of them time laughing out loud as the chief antagonist), over a long period of time due to the laws of statistics and probability, though for the sake of narrative length, shortened the BS to just single games where the winner takes all.
But what would take the cake is what I suppose would be one of the most overt portrayal of a single religious group in Singapore mainstream cinema. It's been done before in independent production such as The Olive Depression, but for the first time we have scenes of prayer, shots of religious grounds, having cell group influences, the cursing of the diety when chips are down (we are man and sinners after all), and the best of the best, a ressurection scene no less! This must be seen to believe, with the character returning as the constant nagging reminder of a consistently broken vow of Tiancai promising to quit gambling, if not for the usual pitfall where one begins from a good intent (here to clear an in-law's debt), as most addicted gamblers will probably tall you.
And who can not resist gambling when this film consistently promotes it as an easy way to strike it rich under Singapore's rising cost of living conditions, where bringing up baby requires multi-millions in order to sustain a moderate lifestyle. On one hand it's a cautionary tale, but on the other I think it's extremely seductive having to see how winning it big, and almost always, with flashy cars and loose women all coming as part of the big fat pay cheque package, would not negatively influence the weakest of wills who happen to get to watch this because of its ensemble of stars. And in almost all gambling instances, this film plays up the exclusive, elitist invites that one has to get, in Tiancai's case through a proxy and partner Honey (Constance Song), god daughter of a rich man (Chen Shucheng) in order to get a foot in the door to be amongst, and play with, the high rollers.
Story wise, Harry Yap stayed true to form by having the story go all over the place, since his directorial effort in Happy Go Lucky (which also featured gambling in its last act) was crafted in similar fashion too, wanting to cover a wide spectrum that it dilutes the film, together with plenty of side show "Calefare"s. There's Rebecca Lim playing the long suffering wife of Tiancai's in what would be one single emotion played up in most of her screen time, the sudden and unwarranted comical appearance of Phyllis Quek and Rayson Tan as a couple whom we will know later to be Tiancai's sister and brother-in-law being the most resolute in their belief as they stand outside a hospital room and pray rather successfully, the master-apprentice/slave relationship between Champion and his assistant Sky (Dai Hao Tian, watch this guy, he's intense) that failed to exploit an opportunity for a deeper exploration, and the tragic love story between Honey and Tiancai, the former clearly having the hots for the latter, but this being quite the religios film that adultery is something frowned upon - one must keep certain morals in the Commandments.
Despite the final few scenes which just demonstrated the filmmakers didn't have a clue how to end this, with two deus ex machina moments, strangely enough the film ended in a manner that screamed and left the door open for a sequel to happen, with what could be a plot of a comeback and tale of revenge. I would welcome that honestly, if only the story would be paced tighter, keeping its focus on gambling and just at most skimming on the goody-two-shoes issues gambling would bring, and having an edgier take rather than to play it safe for favourable classification. For a film about chance, it needed to give itself just that and taken bold, calculated risks instead, the irony in which it didn't and this had to languish below average.