Review: The Ultimate Winner


There is little satisfaction in watching The Ultimate Winner, except in noting the irony of its own title. The film winds up, well, the ultimate winner in the category of downright awful local films released thus far this year.

Li Nanxing wears two hats for this film: director and actor. The movie isn't local TV star Li Nanxing's first foray onto the big screen, but it does mark his virgin stab at directing, and when I say 'stab' here, I mean impaling-you-with-a-blunt-object-over-and-over-again kinda painful. It was, as you can guess, difficult to sit through, and there were so many things wrong with the film that every other scene had me cringing in horror.

Li plays Tian Cai, a gambling prodigy who discovers his gift in his youth. After his father's untimely death at an illegal gambling den, he uses his talent to make a liviing and fend for himself, and this relentless gambling irks his devoted Christian wife Zhi Hui (Rebecca Lim). She is now pregnant, and wants him to nip his vice in the bud before she conceives. Despite truly loving his sweet, long suffering wife, Tian Cai decides he still has to make more money to give his family a better life. With the help of his junket, Honey Ma (Constance Song), he slips into a series of high-stakes games, and the thrill of the big win rekindles his love for the game. He soon rubs shoulders with a wealthy businessman named Champion Lee (Andy Chen), who eventually becomes his nemesis, and things quickly spiral out of control.

Li's turn here as a gambling maestro is very much reminiscent of his role as the King of Gamblers in local drama series The Unbeatables (I - III), except without the charisma or the suaveness. Tian Cai is but a caricature; the character feels like one recycled from a dozen other films/television series exploring gambling or addiction. Li does lend the character some gravitas, but there is no possible way he could transcend the limitations of such a lifeless script. Rebecca Lim also fares decently as the tolerant wife to Tian Cai, capturing her silent anguish, but there is little for her to do in the script besides nagging and berating Tian Cai. The other characters are simply live-size cutouts full of histrionics (cue suicidal attempts, big bawling sessions, scream-fests, and pseudo-menacing glaring) and yet devoid of soul. They are but mere ciphers - their presence only serves to fuel the Christian-evangelical message driving the entire film.

To say that the film's didiacticism is its biggest fault would not be fair, because many great films have dealt with heavy handed moralizing, but to sacrifice everything important in a film, in this case, most notably interesting characters and a coherent plot, is why The Ultimate Winner falls so badly on its own face. Without being sufficiently invested in the characters, especially the lead, one would hardly care what his addiction does to him. Furthermore, a cautionary message against the ills of gambling will only have weight if its glamourous qualities are juxtaposed next to its ability to wreck lives; you have to present its tantalising, seductive nature in order for people to understand the allure of a gambling addiction, however self-destructive it may be. The Ultimate Winner, however, does not even attempt to make gambling look cool - or perhaps it tries, but fails miserably. The players at the high stakes gambling games are dull as dishwater and have zero charisma, and even Champion Lee is all smarm and no charm. The gambling matches had no tension, little mind-f***ing; there was no character and imagination in the directing of the gambling scenes. As if to take away all of the allure in gambling, Li makes sure most of Tian Cai's exploits inevitably end up with his wife berating him.

I wonder if it is the overwhelming Christian voices behind the film that have decided to portray gambling in this light. Cornerstone Pictures is likely a Christian filmmaking company, and Li Nanxing himself a Christian, finding faith a couple of years ago, which helped him deal with his personal demons, so the film, probably being an extension of their beliefs, is moralistic in tone. Midway through the movie, when it was obvious this movie is nothing more than a thinly veiled social message against the dangers of gambling and/or the power of faith/God, I tried to mentally block out all the overwrought scenes and focus on the superficial joys of the movie.

And yet even this did not work out. The film, besides being a huge Christian evangelical machine, is also a major killjoy. Every fun scene is truncated and any worldly joy in the film is quickly nuffed out before it goes into excess: Honey's advances on Tian Cai are rebuffed time after time, never amounting to anything sexual; a car racing scene that was briefly enjoyable ends up with Champion taking a breathalyzer test; Tian Cai's wins are never celebrated by his wife, and his family is never shown to enjoy the fruits of his labour.

So yes, while I was doggedly hoping the movie would capture the glamour of the high life and the thrill of gambling, scaling the heights of wretched excess as a respite from all the emotional histrionics, it ends up depriving me of any form of superficial entertainment. It is an overwrought, incoherent, boring and all together ineffective movie that is more suited to be screened in a church than in the cinema hall.

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