Louis KooAthena ChuChristy ChungYasuaki Kurata
Conman in Tokyo
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Siu-Tung Ching
Writer: Yiu Fai Lo
Keywords: gangster, yakuza
Language: Cantonese, Japanese [occasionally], English [a few sentences], French [swearing]
Country: Hong Kong
Actor: Louis Koo, Nick Cheung, Athena Chu, Christy Chung, Ben Lam, Yasuaki Kurata, Ka-Yan Leung, Joe Cheng, William Tuen
Format: 104 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0325181/
Website category: Asian
Review date: 5 July 2012
I enjoyed it. It's silly nonsense, but the unlikeable cock protagonist is funny and in any case gets sidelined in favour of more dramatic and interesting characters. The story's quite good too.
Firstly, some background. Gambling films are a Hong Kong genre. Wong Jing's God of Gamblers (1989) with Chow Yun-Fat was so successful that it spawned parodies that themselves have spin-offs. Look at the All for the Winner series. However there are plenty of unrelated films as well, often again directed by Wong Jing. The Conman (1998) and its sequel The Conmen in Vegas (1999) are two examples, both starring Andy Lau. Conman in Tokyo though has no story links with any of those, despite the similar title and a couple of shared actors (Nick Cheung in all three, Athena Chu from The Conman). It's not a sequel, prequel or spin-off. It's just Hong Kong eating its own tail again.
We begin with a massive cock who's subjecting us to Hong Kong Comedy (TM), in which yet again a Hong Kong movie has chosen as its protagonist the kind of guy you'd murder if you had to spend five minutes in his company. Nick Cheung is the show-off in question and his girlfriend is Christy Chung. If you're wondering why the film wants her to be from Tahiti, that's because in real life Chung was born in Montreal to Chinese and Vietnamese parents. Her mother tongues are French and Vietnamese, while only later did she learn English, Mandarin and Cantonese.
Anyway, Cheung thinks he's the world's greatest gambler and con-man. He's currently trash-talking his latest mark and having an argument with Chung about swearing that involves both of them shouting in a fashion that one presumes is meant to be funny. However the scene is lively and inventive enough to be fun despite this, with the brief "suck on my banana" musical number being a particular stand-out. That was weird. It would be absurd to call Cheung likeable, but he's also such a freak that he's still entertaining, despite scenes like the one where he's obnoxious both to his girlfriend and the manager of a restaurant.
Crucially, the movie knows that these people are cretins. Look at the scene where Cheung organises his trip to Japan, for instance. Look also at their table manners when they're talking with their mouths crammed full. It's a wonder they can even breathe, let alone talk.
They're just grandstanders, though. The story's real meat involves Louis Koo, Athena Chu and Ben Lam. Koo is a super-gambler called Cool who used to be the biggest thing in crime until he disappeared a few years ago. Lam claims to be his friend. Chu is a vegetable and the reason Koo's still in Japan. The situation with these people is complicated and it turns out in my opinion that Lam's a bit sick in the head. Furthermore Koo is everything Cheung isn't. He's dignified, intelligent, has movie star looks and wants to get out of crime and gambling. They're similar in both being outrageously good at kung fu, but Koo is on another level as a gambler and has more tricks and experience than Cheung can even imagine. His trademark move is throwing playing cards so hard that they're as good as bullets.
There's quite a dark story here. Underneath the silly fluff and pathetic yakuza who run away in mid-fight despite being armed with swords, this movie has characters in pain and a storyline that does a bit more with them than I'd expected.
The gambling stuff is weaker than the Chu plotline, although it's so outrageously done that it's a lot of fun anyway. Yasuaki Kurata is a mega-gambler who plays for stakes like "you have to chop off your hand", while you wouldn't believe the level of cheating and outrageous deals. That's not actually gambling. No card games are played in this film, despite appearances. It's all a competition about who can cheat the worst, played for the camera with ridiculous story points like Koo taking Cheung along for his big showdown with Kurata. It's like taking your baby brother to the O.K. Corral. Why would a top professional want a greenhorn sitting in his lap with the opposite of a poker face, shooting off his mouth about every card he sees?
Kurata's performance disappointed me, by the way. He's okay, but he's not half of what he should have been and I've come to expect better of Japanese actors in Hong Kong films. Kurata however arguably doesn't fit into that category, since these days he only does the occasional Japanese film and instead does mostly Hong Kong and other foreign movies.
Looking back, I liked this film more than I'd expected and quite possibly more than I realised at the time. It's silly, with annoying "look at me, I'm cool" moments like the flashback scene where Koo and Chu walk through a door in a storm of banknotes that blow in the air around them for about 10000 hours... instead of, you know, picking any of it up. However for every moment like that, there's a counterbalancing one like the lovely goodbye to Kurata. I really liked that bit. The story's a bit longer and more involved than usual for Hong Kong action nonsense and at one point fooled me into thinking we'd reached the finale when we still had another half-hour to go. I admire the film's heart, but I also admire its energy and sense of fun. Was that a video game parody dream sequence?
If you're prepared to lower your standards a little, enough to cope with the odd speed bump, there's a lot to like here. If nothing else, it sounds an improvement on lots of other gambling movies, e.g. The Conman 2002. (That's got Andy Lau and Nick Cheung too.)