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Plot: small-time crooks and renowned amnesiac gambler teach the Triads a lesson

Like many a popular Hong Kong property the God Of Gamblers franchise has a confusing history with sub-franchises, spin-offs, and regular sequels following its initial box office success. What counts as canon largely depends on one’s personal preference as most movies in the franchise share the same talent and themes, but largely exist in their own continuities, an exception or two notwithstanding. Chow Yun-Fat, Andy Lau, and Stephen Chow at various points headline the proceedings, but the deeper one gets into the series (recurring roles for Ng Man-Tat and Sharla Cheung, among others, often as different characters from one installment to the next, don’t help either) the harder it becomes to make sense of the timelines and continuity. Some of ‘em are funnier, some of ‘em are not. Some have Jing Wong directing, others do not. What does remain a constant is that the God Of Gamblers franchise is filled with action, comedy, strikingly beautiful women and exciting high-stakes gambling matches against a variety of colorful opponents.

Ko Chun (Chow Yun-Fat) is a secretive black-tie gambler blessed with the uncanny ability to win high-stakes games even when the odds are seemingly stacked against him. For that reason he is known only as the God Of Gamblers. Ko Chun has a beautiful wife in Janet (Sharla Cheung, as Man Cheung) and lives a quiet life when not gambling. He also is a fanatic and connoisseur of preeminent chocolate and won’t settle for less. When Ko Chun’s Japanese acquaintance Mr. Wang (Luk Chuen) requests his services for a high-stakes mahjong game against nefarious loanshark Shing (Ng Man-Tat). He, of course, agrees to help his friend to even his incurred debt. Ko Chun faces Shing and his partner miss Shi (Michiko Nishiwaki) – who, judging by her set of tattoos, is involved with the Triads - and defeats them against impossible odds. Dishonored by their loss at the mahjong game the Triads send a gang of assassins to murder Ko Chun. For protection Wang sets him up with security detail Lung Ng or Dragon (Charles Heung Wah-Keung), but he’s unable to ward off the many assailants swarming Ko Chun.

Meanwhile small-time crook Michael Chan, who calls himself Little Knife (Andy Lau) on the streets, has set up a practical joke for a neighbour. Little Knife lives in the New Territories in a small house down at the waterline with his mother (Chan Lap-Ban), his girlfriend Jane (Joey Wong) and his friend Crawl (Ronald Wong). In getting away from a swarm of Triad assailants Ko Chun runs into Little Knife’s trap and crashes down a hill injuring his head. Little Knife and his friends find Ko Chun and decide to rob him now that he’s in a helpless state. To make ends meet Jane works as a hostess in a nightclub in the big city. Little Knife has an change of heart, mostly due to Jane’s intervening, and instead takes Ko Chun into the house, and nurse him back to health. Rendered amnesiac due to his head trauma Ko Chun has no recollection of his former identity, and has regressed to an infantile state – but has retained both his masterful gambling skills and his incredible love for chocolate. Thus, in lieu of actually knowing that Ko Chun is the God Of Gamblers, they dub him Chocolate. Little Knife decides to have Chocolate checked up by Dr. Toneg Wong (Dennis Chan) just to be safe. In the interim they use Chocolate for their own personal enrichment, but Ko Chun’s former gambling associates want to coerce him into playing one final high-stakes match against revered elderly Singaporean industry legend Chan Gam Sing (Bau Hon-Lam).

The titular star of the God Of Gamblers is Chow Yun-Fat, who at this point was mostly known as an actor in dramatic and romantic pieces as Love in a Fallen City (1984). Yun-Fat had finished a stint in the heroic bloodshed genre working with directors John Woo and Ringo Lam on HK action classics as A Better Tomorrow (1986), City on Fire (1987), Prison on Fire (1987) and A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987). For the romance An Autumn's Tale (1987) Yun-Fat won the Golden Horse Award for best actor. God Of Gamblers allowed Chow Yun-Fat to showcase his versatility as an actor as it combined all of the previous genres he had dabbled in. Jing Wong’s gambling movie broke Hong Kong's all-time box office records establishing gambling as a veritable genre. God Of Gamblers was the first high-profile appearance of Joey Wong after her star-making turn in Tsui Hark’s tragically romantic fantasy wuxia A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Wong gets a few bars of Burt Bacharach’s ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ as a theme, to establish her character’s good nature and overall innocence. When we first see Wong she’s wearing a casual shirt and ripped denims, later she can be seen wearing a very flattering figure-fitting verdant corset-dress that accentuates her athletic build. Sharla Cheung had been in Wong’s The Magic Crystal (1986) and would feature in Royal Tramp (1992) and its sequel, Kung Fu Cult Master (1993), The Sword Stained with Royal Blood (1993) and Dragon Chronicles - The Maidens Of Heavenly Mountains (1994).

Most, if not all, the comedy is derived from Chow Yun-Fat’s Ko Chun regressing back to an infantile state after his head injury. His child-like antics, and the lenghts to which the gang have to go to provide their card-playing wünderkind with a steady stream of chocolate, do give Yun-Fat the possibility to show his range as an actor. At one point Little Knife is chased by Triad goons across bamboo scaffolding which is pretty funny. Ng Man-Tat excels as the lecherous Triad loanshark and Michiko Nishiwaki does most of her acting with mere glances during the opening mahjong game. Joey Wong, having played a good amount of spectral maidens by this point, is allowed to do something else than constantly looking misty-eyed and pouting. As Jane she usually acts as the gang’s voice of reason and conscious – and Little Knife only comes around until Jane tells him to. Sharla Cheung’s Janet is pretty much a supporting character and her involvement in the plot is minimal as such. Once Jane is reunited with Ko Chun at the end of the third act there’s a wonderful sense of chemistry between her and Chow Yun-Fat. Jing Wong always had an eye for beauty and Strawberry Yeung Yuk-Mui, who plays a card-dealing waitress at one of the games later in the movie, is no exception to the rule.

Depending on your tolerance for situational – and slapstick comedy shenanigans God Of Gamblers is one of those cross-genre exercise that could only have come from Jing Wong. When Wong’s on fire he hits the marks more often than not. When he doesn’t something as nigh on incoherent as Future Cops (1993) is usually in the cards. In the interim Andy Lau and Stephen Chow were given their own sub-franchises and The Top Bet (1991) installed Carol Cheng Yu-Ling and Anita Mui as the star gamblers. It wouldn’t be until 1994 that Wong produced an official sequel to his earlier smash hit. For reasons that remain largely oblique God Of Gamblers and its belated official sequel never quite catched on in the Western hemisphere despite pushing all the right buttons. Chow Yun-Fat, now a superstar in his native Hong Kong, would eventually conquer Europe and America with the award-winning Ang Lee period costume wuxia Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) with former Girls with Guns action star Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. In 1989 Chow Yun-Fat was just starting to find his footing in Hong Kong genre cinema.

Plot: Royal Hong Kong Police officer takes down gang of assassins

Madam City Hunter was the second of three directorial features by frequent Kar-Wai Wong assistant director Johnnie Kong. As expected it is as far removed from the work of Kar-Wai Wong as you’d imagine. The most direct forebear for Madam City Hunter is the Sammo Hung produced Yes, Madam! (1985) with Michelle Yeoh. Like its forebear Madam City Hunter mixes fast-paced martial arts action with humour that frequently misses the mark and a family plot worthy of a syndicated daytime soap opera. The humor is above average and better than most Jing Wong. It isn’t high art and it never aspires to be. Its sexual politics are confused, the plot is scattered and barely threadbare at best, but it manages to deliver exactly what it promises: Cynthia Khan kicking everybody's ass with her balletic martial arts.

The plot concerns tough, no-nonsense Royal Hong Kong Police officer Yang Ching (Yang Li-Tsing, as Cynthia Khan) taking down a vicious gang of assassins known as the Five Fingers. Framed for the murder of a group of teens Ching is pulled off the case but encouraged by the smitten Commissioner Kwong (Kwong Leung Wong, as Tommy Kwong-Leung Wong) to clandestinely continue the investigation while he orders protection in the form of bumbling, goofy private investigator Charlie Chang (Anthony Wong) and his hyperactive girlfriend Blackie (Sheila Chan). On the homefront Ching’s wealthy father (Fung Woo) has a new fiancée in Siu-Hung (Kara Hui, as Chare Wai Eng Hong). Ching suspects she has ulterior motives but has nothing to substantiate the claim. Will Ching be able to stop Five Fingers leader Thumb (Yau Gin-Gwok) and his reign of terror across the city?

For Cynthia Khan Madam City Hunter was hardly her first venture into action. Khan was born Yang Li-Tsing in Taiwan and was a practitioner of taekwondo and ballet dancing. In 1985 she won a national talent contest run by a Taiwanese television station. Two years later, in 1987, she signed a contract with Hong Kong production company D & B Films Co., Ltd. to replace their star Michelle Yeoh (then still Kahn) in the third installment of the In the Line Of Duty series (1985-1991), a sequel franchise that arose from the box office success of the martial arts actioner Yes, Madam! (1985). At the urging of her contractors Yang Li-Tsing was given an Anglicized alias, in this case a portmanteau of her two favorite Hong Kong martial arts inspirations and D & B favorites: Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Kahn (later Yeoh). Thus came to be Cynthia Kahn, a reliable second-tier performer who made up her lack of acting talent in sheer athleticism, acrobacy and elegance of movement. As Michelle Yeoh’s star rose with appearances in the Bond episode Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and the period wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) Cynthia Khan was summarily (and unjustly) relegated to obscurity.

The remainder of the cast was a gathering of talent, old and new. Kara Hui was a Chinese actress that grew up in the shanty town of Tiu Keng Leng (or Rennie’s Mill as it is more popularly known) before being discovered by director Lau Kar-leung. Hui made a name for herself for her numerous kung fu roles in Shaw Bros productions all through the 1970s and 80s. In 1993 Anthony Wong was a rising star with appearances in Hong Kong actioners as Hard Boiled (1992), and The Heroic Trio (1993), as well as Cat. III productions as The Untold Story (1993) and Ebola Syndrome (1996). Sheila Chan was Miss Photogenic and the first runner-up at the 1988 Miss Hong Kong Pageant. Chan earlier had played a character named Blackie in the actioner Lady Hunter: Prelude to Murder (1992), the directorial debut of Takashi Miike. Fung Woo was an elder statesmen of Hong Kong cinema. He was a known matinee idol in the 1950s and 1960s and famous for his frequent collaborations with Josephine Siao in 1960s musicals. He was nicknamed the “Dance King” for his legendary dancing skills.

As expected with low budget romps like this the writing is hit-and-miss. In the beginning it spents far too long on a subplot concerning one of the kids for whose murder Ching is framed for. Another subplot concerns the financial woes of private investigator Charlie Chan and his girlfriend Blackie. The dinner scene with Blackie constantly toasting and getting ever drunker in the process gets on the nerves quick. In fact Blackie’s entire character seems to be based around endless screaming and pseudo-funny skits. The connect-the-dots screenplay exists as a showcase for the fight choreography. Said choreography is pretty good considering on how small of a budget this was produced. Khan is elegant in all of her martial arts routines, and even Anthony Wong throws in a few select moves towards the end. Madam City Hunter works around its budgetary limitations with frequent martial arts routines and comedic overkill. Not all the humor hits the mark, but things could be far worse. Cynthia Khan’s filmography is littered with low-budget outings like this, and Madam City Hunter is among the better entries in a considerable body of work that wildly fluxuates in terms of quality.

The action choreography by Cheung-Yan Yuen sells Madam City Hunter even when the screenplay doesn’t. It starts with an extended shootout in a building holding a bunch of heavily-armed gangsters, Khan bursts in and makes short work of any assailants she encounters by relentlessly high-kicking, punching, or shooting the life out of them. Known for her no-nonsense cop roles Cynthia Khan here shows a more gentle, humane side to her character as Royal Hong Kong Police officer Yang Ching is fallible too – and Madam City Hunter has her partying, being lovesick, sad, and getting drunk. The one-on-one fights are fast-paced, hard-hitting and energetic to a fault. Khan takes as much damage as she metes out. The confrontation with the head goon takes her across his hideout, and sees her fighting him with bamboo sticks. When he tries to take off Khan continues her pursuit across rooftops. The entire sequence climaxes as Khan battles her katana-wielding opponent unarmed hanging suspended from a bamboo scaffolding and into an adjacent room where he is finally defeated and arrested. Khan’s graceful balletic moves, athleticism, and martial arts chops are what sells the scene.

Madam City Hunter is strangely enjoyable action nonsense that obviously capitalized on Jackie Chan’s City Hunter (1993) from Hong Kong cultural zeitgeist - and exploitation institution Jing Wong and Michelle Yeoh's Yes, Madam! (1985). It caters to the same audience from Khan’s In the Line Of Duty series even though the humor, often lowbrow and juvenile, frequently gravitates into The Inspector Wears Skirts (1988-1992) territory. The comedy takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. Whether it’s Anthony Wong’s incessant mugging and bumbling in front of the camera, Sheila Chan’s infectious-cum-annoying hyperactivity, the prerequisite cross-dressing assassin, and a pre-Viagra herbal extract joke that is mistaken for poison (with the expected results). The middle section drags somewhat with its numerous romantic misadventures that could've come out of Bollywood production. Sheila Chan looks pretty cute in her little maid outfit. Cynthia Khan and Kara Hui regularly steam up the screen with their mini-skirts and the fight choreography by Cheung-Yan Yuen is frenetic, elegant and frequently impressive thanks to its sheer can-do attitude. Madam City Hunter is far better than it has any right to be, and low-budget HK action regularly doesn't always aspire to the standards that Madam City Hunter sets for itself. As far as Hong Kong action nonsense goes you could do far worse than Madam City Hunter.