image Stephen Chow’s Back to Shanghai

It’s also known as God of Gamblers IIIThe most interesting thing about this Hong Kong classic, however, is that there were two antithetical versions. The Taiwan version had a different actress because there was a law which banned any Mainland Chinese performer from appearing on Taiwanese screens. This could have deterred Wong Jing (王晶) from casting Gong Li (鞏俐) due to the custom of Taiwanese shareholders (or independent investors) funding H.K. films (it’s not so per usual as of nowadays because of the post-1997 Mainland ownership). As such, Taiwan was the most important market for H.K. cinema from the `80s to the `90s. Example: the Taiwanese distribution rights for God of Gamblers II amounted to U.S.$ 3 million (this was almost 70% of the budget). H.K. movies début in Taiwan so that the Taiwanese financiers can get their money back as quickly as possible. Also, it’s a testing ground to delete (instead of reshoot) for the H.K. release. Therefore, Alice Fang Ji-Wei (whose first Anglicized name was Sophia Fang Chi-Wei) had her shots filmed first. As a side-note, Alice became Sophia’s new name for her 311 (i.e. March 11) blog. 

Jing’s 1991 threequel reflects another threequel – Back to the Future Part III (1990). In God of Gamblers II, Stephen’s introduction was inspired by the way that George McFly was introduced in BTTF Part II. In God of Gamblers, a plot twist at the end is reminiscent of the most poignant one in BTTF. In Jing’s threequel, the disappearing person in the photo has more poignance. Like many film buffs, Jing knew about Eric Stoltz being replaced by Mikey J. Fox. Unlike most, he understood the politics of the situation. Eric was in BTTF because his performance in Mask was Oscar-tipped. In Cantonese slang, black horse means someone who may not stand to win but is worth betting on. In BTTF, Eric was mostly dressed in black. The initial buzz for Mask was so good that he was at least expected to win a Golden Globe. Rival studio powerplay delayed the release of Mask. Getting fired resulted in voters looking at him quite negatively. Jing learned this from Steven Spielberg because they had phone calls in the first half of the `80s (I learned this from a 1997 interview on a German website called CineAsia).

The first similarity between the Alice and Stoltz versions is that they begin differently from their more famous versions (albeit Alice’s version begins with a 4 minute recap of what occurred in the previous movie). As for the differences between the Alice and Gong versions, there are as many as there are between the two versions of BTTF. When we first see Alice, she is walking with her bicycle on a field. When we first see Gong, she is walking with her horse on another field. This was a way of identifying the two versions in the cutting room. It was also a way to assure the financiers that money was being sparingly used e.g. Stoltz wore a blue down vest (code blue), whereas Fox wore a red one (code red). What makes this obvious is that not only did Fox wear a red T-shirt, contrasting with Eric’s long-sleeved blue shirt, but Fox’s version of the homeless man was named Red. In Cantonese culture, it’s slang to describe a celebrity as being red in terms of popularity. In Western culture, “in the red” means that you have overspent.

When Alice sees Stephen (周星馳), she goes from glad to glum. When Gong sees him, her face goes from sad to glee. Both actresses escape from him on their selective modes of travel. He trips when going after Alice. He leaps and falls when going after Gong. The way that Gong is revealed to be at the funeral has an air of mystery because of the way that the camera turns to see who is behind the big hat. Alice looks amused when he giggles. Like how Gong is taller than Alice when standing next to the Shanghai Mayor (as played by Tien Feng), Eric is taller than Michael when alongside Christopher Lloyd. During the funeral gun battle, Alice panics and slaps Stephen when he’s on top of her because she’s scared. Gong doesn’t register much in the way of worry.

When we first see the faces of Alice (方季惟) and Sandra Ng (吳君如) in the church, they get equal screen presence. Gong’s version sees Sandra briefly in the spotlight before the focus of the camera has her presence pushed to (or should that be blurred into?) the background in favour of Gong when the latter kneels to be in the frame. The shot of Peter Ng Man-Tat (吳孟達) pretending to pray to the cubicle-based priest is better in the Alice version because the lighting is arranged to show the priest’s POV, likewise when Sandra informs Alice that the priest is actually the dim-witted man who saved her life. Also, her version is superior because it clearly shows Sandra was exiting the church before noticing Peter is observing the confession from afar.

It’s also superior because Gong, in general, has a reputation for being something of an ice queen (due to being a serious actress). Back to the comparisons, Sandra is more humorous (more laid-back) when she tells Alice that Peter is crazy for praising the priest. Sandra thinks nothing of it in Gong’s version. Alice has more charm than the strait-laced Gong when telling the minister that his dream is getting longer. Alice does a better job of showing frustration when Stephen is proven to be a phoney. When Sandra confronts Stephen in Gong’s version, it’s clearly (upon eagle eye scrutiny) a shortened version of the shot in Alice’s version.

The difference is that Gong’s version is quickly cut before Alice steps into the frame. Alice’s version is better because we see Sandra open the doors to the priest’s cubicle unlike the abrupt exposure that is present in the H.K. version (this proves that the scene was first shot with Alice). When Stephen apologizes to Alice as herself and Sandra leave, it’s more epic because they leave the big church as opposed to being in what could be any building. It’s also slightly sad because Peter isn’t there to provide comic relief dialogue, but it’s still comedically amusing because the implication is that he is still reeling from Sandra’s strength.

When Alice and Sandra accompany the Mayor in the casino, Alice smiles whereas Sandra doesn’t. When Gong is in Sandra’s presence, the latter is smiling except the former. Trust me when I say that Gong, in the long run, is the one who is more of a sourpuss. Alice and Sandra are in a happier mood when the female V.I.P. approaches Ray Lui (呂良偉). After Stephen mistakes Peter’s kiss as one from Gong, the female bodyguard (who is played by Yeung Ching-Ching) tries to contain a laugh while Gong looks sheepish. Neither reaction occurs in Alice’s funnier version. When Stephen wins the first round, Alice is ebullient. Sandra is also more enthusiastic, especially when Alice turns to her on two occasions so that they share their enjoyment through eye contact.

Gong’s version is milder because she had less enthusiasm and, thus, lacked chemistry (Alice was more fun because she is a singer). When Stephen is being crowd-lifted as part of the celebration, Alice is amused whereas Gong is mildly that. After an announcer claims that Ray will find his true love, Alice jokingly tells him that he is insulting her. He jokingly asks the Mayor if he thinks that he will insult her. In Gong’s version, Ray suggests that she toasts Stephen because he’s great (she was too much of a diva to be entirely self-deprecating). When Ray applauds the idea that Stephen has to do a Chinese version of McDonald’s, the shot is shorter in the H.K. version because the camera pans to Alice on the dance floor (further proof that her shots were filmed first).

When Sandra meets Alice’s mentally challenged twin, it is better because we see her open the door, the room is spookily darker and the camera circulates in a manner that is akin to how Gong was first introduced. Alice’s acting is better because she turns around in a sprightly manner. Like how Michael’s red T-shirt contrasted with Eric’s white one, Gong’s white dress contrasts with Alice’s green one. Jing was referencing the folk tale of the white and green snakes who become human sisters. This method of polarity was done to prove that they weren’t reusing footage. If you observe BTTF, Stoltz and Fox wore different shoes. Fox wore Nike shoes (except for the skateboard scene) so that the hazmat (radioactive) suit footage couldn’t be used in a court case for breaching Eric’s contract.

When the first branch of McDonald’s opens in Shanghai, the introduction to Gong via Sandra is better because the camera pans to the right in a manner that allows the viewer to see the left side of the revolving door before revealing Gong to be entering from the right. Despite Jing’s reputation for being frugal, he reshot Stephen and Peter’s close-ups for an artistic reason. The H.K. version shows that Stephen is so depressed that Pete has to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention. Another stark difference is that he is so speechless that he doesn’t speak her name in astonishment. This ties in with what happened to BTTF. When filming two different versions, you have to create differences so that the replaced actor doesn’t think about detecting similarities so as to seek residual rights.

The best difference is that Jing uses a distinctive way of showing the couples meeting each other. In the H.K. version, he cunningly focuses on the space that exists between them before they step into the frame. The Taiwanese version is quite generic in that the camera pans to the right while moving back. Alice displays affection by caressing Stephen’s face with her right palm instead of squeezing his nose with her right hand. When the pork bun musical number comes in, Alice is more spirited as she claps along. Ironically, Gong is the one who is ecstatic when Stephen lands on his back at the end of the dance. Alice looks rather concerned.

Even more ironic is that Gong rides a bicycle instead of the established horse during the montage where the two couples are romancing each other. Stephen comments on her beauty whereas that doesn’t happen with Alice. To the latter’s undue credit, she does better with the sight gag of using a branch to adorn his hat like how he adorned her hat with flowers. Gong is more callous when she hits his head with a lump of soil. She also seems colder during the photo shoot. Instead of being cold in a fun way, she is a buzzkill. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jing thinks that she was a bit of wet blanket. With her being someone who appeals to arthouse snobs, you would think that she would be too snooty to appear in this movie.

When Stephen and Peter are surprised to see the normal twin at a location earlier than they are, Alice is cordial whereas Gong is icy. The way that the background has been changed reminds me of the Blu-ray footage of Stoltz in Doc Brown’s living room (i.e. different lamps). This got me thinking that if you’re making two versions of the same movie then you have to make sure that the cast and crew don’t get frustrated from being jaded. Alice allows for eye contact which leads to some hand gestures from Stephen and Peter that Ray is oblivious to. Gong is aloof, so the interplay is missing. When we get to the heart-shaped mirror sight gag, Stephen communicates to Alice about his heart whereas he communicates to Gong about his bitten lips. When Stephen and Peter leave, Ray smokes a cigar when in the presence of Gong yet he drinks tea in Alice’s presence.

When Stephen meets Alice on the balcony in the next scene, he is mostly relaxed in his body language whereas he is mostly reserved with Gong. With the exception of squeezing Gong’s nose, he is uncomfortable around her. He clearly perceived her as standoffish. The scene where the normal twin approaches her sister’s art room starts off better in Alice’s version because of an establishing shot of her walking through a corridor. Not only does it give a better sense of spatial awareness and build-up but the use of a dutch angle gives it a certain edge. In Gong’s version, she is seen behind a veil which gives a more loving sense of revelation. In Alice’s version, the camera pans from the painting to her face whereas this is achieved in Gong’s version through editing. This reminds me of how less shots were filmed for the Stoltz version of the first `50s Hill Valley scene in BTTF.

Gong’s version of the normal twin is proven to be eavesdropping when Lung Fong (龍方) hears her fingers use a phone. Alice’s version is a bit more conventional in that she bumps into a vase (it’s also more predictable in terms of how the framing makes it telegraphed). Gong’s version is still flawed because the villain uselessly tells her that she has heard all that they have said. She pointlessly tells him that she doesn’t want to work with a traitor. Her version of the scene is still better because there is a shot of Ray which adds hope that is dashed by circumvention. A key difference is the misogynistic violence inflicted on Gong, which is a retaliation to her having a stiff upper lip. Many years later, she admitted that she still wasn’t down-to-earth enough when the time came to reunite with Stephen for Flirting Scholar (1993).

As for Back to Shanghai, what happens to Alice is merely a case of a chase resulting in manslaughter as opposed to being a victim of violent misogny. As we see the mentally unstable twin in her bedroom, we see more in Alice’s master shot. She conveys a superior sense of fear when being threatened by her unscrupulous father (the Mayor of Shanghai). The footage of the father’s close-up is the same but has an extra subtitle in Gong’s version because he tells her to drink. Gong is superior at showing her lack of mental stability by chewing on her bed cover. The fact that she gets to have her own close-up signifies that it has nothing to do with Jing’s admiration and more to do with commercial necessity.

From his viewpoint, the only consolation is an egotistical line of dialogue when Stephen tells Gong that she shouldn’t come onto him despite himself being handsome. His acting in Alice’s version is sincere. When it’s revealed to Stephen and Peter that their love interests are held hostage, Gong’s happy-go-lucky portrayal is at odds with the scenario. Alice’s depiction is more fitting because she conveys deranged dismay. While the Japanese fighter, played by Billy Chow (周比利), kicks Stephen to the wall that’s situated near the bottom of a staircase, it should be noted that the Cantonese shot is abridged because the Taiwanese shot showed Alice running down the stairs. Stephen literally pulls a face to make Gong laugh, but this scene is played straight with Alice.

When Gong arrives at the casino with Stephen, the camera reverses. With Alice, the camera zooms in. A more outlandish difference is that Stephen tells Ching (楊菁菁) to look after Gong. After the game is over, Gong is given a close-up (unlike Alice). I would like to digress by saying that even though Jing was inspired by how there were less close-ups of Eric, Jing did a better job of directing Gong than Zemeckis did with Eric. The difference between Eric and Gong is that the latter had zero experience with comedy. Alice looks more heartbroken when Tai-Kun (another supernatural gambler) tells Stephen that the laws of time-travel won’t allow her to age in the way that he hopes. The penultimate scene is different in that she has already vanished from the photo. The music is more poignant.

The definitive evaluation is this – Gong is the more astoundingly accomplished and astonishingly acclaimed actress, but she was 6/10 in this movie (unlike Alice’s 7/10 performance). As for the comparisons to BTTF, less effort has gone into Alice’s version (e.g. less shots) because it was a necessary evil (the same thing applies to Eric because Spielberg knew that he was to be replaced). Like how the shot of Eric punching Thomas F. Wilson was retained for the Fox version, the shot of Alice and Sandra entering the church was retained for the Gong version. This also extends to other shots where we don’t see the new stars. The Taiwan version is the most successful of its kind – allowing customers to get an almost diametrical version, especially considering that the Taiwanese tape’s full frame allowed people to see more of existing shots versus the VCD’s cropped format (which is like comparing a 35 mm movie to a 16 mm TV series).

In conclusion, if you intend to replace an actor then you have to go out of your way to make the reshooting so different that the replaced actor doesn’t think that you are reusing their shots. If you intend to reuse footage, a compromise can be made in terms of how you change the clothes. The skateboard sequence in BTTF is a janky example. Eric and Mike both wore the same clothes except for the shirts underneath the jackets. Eric wore a light blue one whereas Mike wore a purple one.

It makes one wonder how candid that Spielberg was with Jing or Barry as he was known as. Clearly, Jing taught him how to realistically speed-up the camera for the fleeting fighting moments of Short Round for Indiana Jones in The Temple of Doom. Also, Doc Brown being illuminated in green light for the Twin Pines Mall experiment (in the Stoltz version) is reflective of a H.K. cinema trope – treachery is foreshadowed (e.g. The Way of the Dragon). In Cantonese slang, wearing a green hat means being an unfaithful partner. To dot red and dot green means to change one’s mind. Fire red, fire green means acting in a feverish manner. To cut green grain means to leave a gambling table early with one’s winnings. In Eric’s version, Doc lies when Marty asks him if he stole the plutonium from anyone. However, the green light on Doc could also symbolize that the movie was greenlit because of Christopher Lloyd (who was given top billing in a 1984 article).

As tempting as it would be to use archive footage of Chow Yun-Fat à la the Zemeckis sequel, Jing went against it because it would have hurt the box office figure. Also, he believes that the way that the original George was replaced is akin to Bruce Lee in Game of Death but less forgiving. The Taiwanese version of Back to Shanghai is on YouTube, but to find it, you need to copy and paste the Chinese title (賭俠II上海灘賭聖). It’s over two hours long. Considering that Declan Wong appeared in a 1991 H.K. movie which begins in France, it’s not much of a coincidence that he plays the French god of gamblers (an extension of Sandra renaming Stephen as Comment Allez-vous). In John Woo’s Once a Thief, Declan appeared as a lethal magician (referencing Jing’s excellent Challenge of the Gamesters). Chow Yun-Fat’s use of razor-sharp cards was also a way of reminding people of God of Gamblers. Interestingly, the next part of Jing’s series (a.k.a. The Return of the God of Gamblers) also begins in France. As an amusing footnote, Michael Wong (one of Declan’s two brothers) was in the TV reboot of Once a Thief.

This article was intended to be in my English translation of Jing’s underwritten autobiography but there is a rule as to how many words that you can have. My word-count is 80,000. As an appendix to this article, Back to Shanghai is also a send-up of Shanghai Beach (a TV series that is officially known in English as The Bund), which made stars out of Ray and Chow Yun-Fat (the former was okay with sending up his own role in this movie). As such, God of Gamblers III is known officially in Chinese as The Conman II: Winner on the Beach. The title also refers to Stephen’s All for the Winner.

God of Gamblers II was disallowed to be titled All for the Winner II, for it was intended to appeal to Andy Lau’s ego in order for him to be cast (i.e. it’s titled in Chinese as Gambling Knight). The movie was nothing more than an attempt to cash in All for the Winner, which broke the box office record held by God of Gamblers. The Chinese title for All for the Winner (賭聖 – Gambling Saint) is similar to the one for God of Gamblers (賭神 – Gambling God). Back to Back to Shanghai, Ray playing the `40s equivalent to the god of gamblers is an in-joke in that if Chow didn’t want to do the first movie then Ray would’ve been the second choice (such as Stoltz).


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