The Game Changer
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D, 132 mins.
Director: Gao Xixi 高希希.
An often breathless shoot-’em-up in Old Shanghai that’s traditional entertainment of the best kind.
Shanghai, French Concession area, summer 1935. Following the shooting of some Chinese workers at a Japanese cotton mill, protestors storm the Japanese embassy and students join the riots, leaving five dead. Li Zihao (He Rundong), one of the students, is arrested and tortured. He joins an impromptu prison break by a younger prisoner, Fang Jie (Huang Zitao), the cocky adopted son of crimelord Tang Hexuan (Wang Xueqi), head of the Qing gang. Their escape finally succeeds and the two part ways, Fang Jie to his pampered playboy life and Li Zihao to sleeping in an alley. Some time later, Fang Jie goes to the docks to meet Tang Hexuan’s daughter, Tang Qianqian (Gulnazar), when she returns from two years away in the UK; on the way home, however, their vehicle is ambushed by gangsters from the rival Hong gang – run by Ye Qishan (Gao Jie) – who try to kidnap Tang Qianqian. By chance, Li Zihao is dragged into the chase and ends up rescuing Tang Qianqian, who persuades her father to employ him. Tang Hexuan has him checked out and finds he’s a radical student leader from Beijing but with no connections to his enemy, the Blue Shirts Society 蓝衣社, a pro-Nationalist Party secret organisation. Tang Hexuan formally adopts Li Zihao as a foster son and gives him a senior post in his gang. Li Zihao is surprised to discover that his onetime fiancee, Lan Ruoyan (Chu Ja-hyeon), whom he thought had been killed by Tang Hexuan during the riots, is alive and working as a singer in the crimelord’s favourite nightclub, the Paramount. Now Tang Hexuan’s lover, she is annoyed at Li Zihao for having involved her in the riots. Li Zihao, who is secretly working for the Blue Shirts, reports to his contact Luo (Yao Anlian) that he is working inside Tang Hexuan’s organisation; Luo reveals that Lan Ruoyan is also spying on Tang Hexuan for them. Lan Ruoyan notices that Tang Qianqian has fallen for Li Zihao, and Fang Jie warns him to be careful. A day before the election for the director-generalship of the French Concession’s Municipal Council – for which Tang Hexuan is standing against Ye Qishan – Tang Hexuan is fired on during a speech and his car is blown up as he escapes.
Luxuriantly shot, and with some knockout action sequences, The Game Changer 游戏规则 is an often breathless shoot-’em-up set in gang-riddled Shanghai of the mid-1930s that’s traditional entertainment of the best kind. Though it lacks the stylisation of Old Shanghai sagas like, say, One Step Away 触不可及 (2014) or The Wasted Times 罗曼蒂克消亡史(2016), it compensates with some rich performances (led by the ruthless crimelord of veteran actor Wang Xueqi 王学圻) and a devil-may-care approach to the action that take the film close to 8/10 at its best. The major weakness is the dialogue, which is either too stagey or too simplistic, and lacks the overall quality of the production values. The fourth and easily the best feature by Jiangxi-born Gao Xixi 高希希, 55, whose early background was in art and design and who for years directed TV drama series, it took a respectable RMB103 million on Mainland release.
The film’s Chinese title means “Rules of the Game”, and there’s an element of deadly playfulness that runs through the picture, as crimelord Tang Hexuan (Wang) seeks to become the undisputed king of the French Concession by cold-bloodedly eliminating anyone in his way. Nothing new there, but Gao and his team of six writers – including Guo Mengxin 郭梦昕 who worked on Gao’s last feature For Love or Money 露水红颜 (2014) and Yu Lu 俞露 and Liu Dongyue 刘东岳 who co-wrote the TVD Hey Daddy 黑，老头！ (2015) – manage to divert the viewer’s attention by a crisp, fast-moving plot and some extended action that is clearly designed to make the most of the 3-D conversion. Though the film is over two hours, it never feels like it; and with the first half-hour largely made up of two elaborate sequences that pile action upon action (a prison break plus a car chase; a pursuit through downtown Shanghai centred on a horse-drawn carriage), there’s not much time to ponder the fact that the basic plot is nothing special and never goes very deeply into its components. (The story cavalierly mixes fictional elements with real-life ones, such as student riots and the sinister Blue Shirts Society 蓝衣社 affiliated with the KMT.)
Another diversion is the effortlessly classy playing of the crimelord by Wang, who looks great in a black hat and greatcoat and can invest even corny lines with depth and foreboding. The film sets his portrayal off against lighter playing from Taiwan veteran Gao Jie 高捷 [Jack Kao] as his gang rival, just as the two younger leads – US-born, Taiwan-raised actor-singer He Rundong 何润东 [Peter Ho], 42, and Mainland singer Huang Zitao 黄子韬, 24 – are also contrasted, the former cool and hunky (though a bit old for a student), the latter cocky and impulsive. In his first major screen role after supports in the rom-com You Are My Sunshine 何以笙箫默 (2015) and action comedy Railroad Tigers 铁道飞虎 (2016), Huang is especially impressive, growing in the part and burying any memories of his epicene boybander image.
Female roles are also a little more than just decoration this time: perky Uyghur actress Gulnazar 古力娜扎, 25, who’s better known for her TVDs, throws herself into the action during a terrific sequence in which our heroes find her kidnapped, and Mainland-based South Korean actress Chu Ja-hyeon 추자현 | 秋瓷炫, 38, brings some maturer heft to her role as a sultry Shanghai chanteuse-with-a-background.
The lush, saturated photography by Iranian Canadian Saba Mazloum (Night Peacock 夜孔雀, 2015; Wine War 抢红, 2017) deserves star billing of its own, relishing the production design by Wang Yitao 王贻涛 which makes even the usual Old Shanghai backlot streets look fresh this time round. The Game Changer doesn’t break any new ground in its genre, and always – especially in its makeup and costumes – has a filmy rather than realistic 1930s look. But it serves up two hours or so of diverting entertainment and has a risk-taking attitude that provides its fair share of waah! moments. One of those is right at the start, where the VFX crew has come up with the Best Bund Fly-Over Sequence Ever.
Presented by Beijing Hope Century Motion Pictures (CN).
Script: Yu Lu, Liu Dongyue, Wang Zi, Han Zengguang, Guo Mengxin, Song Qinghe. Photography: Saba Mazloum, Cao Wanqiang. Editing: Lin Yang, Yao Liang. Music: Zhang Zheng. Production design: Wang Yitao. Art direction: Qi Yong, Zhuang Yan. Costume design: Chen Tongxun. Styling: Zhang Ye. Sound: Wang Danrong, Ye Dandan, Zhu Yanfeng. Action: Sun Wenzhi. Visual effects: A Pan, Qin Wei (Joyful Stone, Infinite Motion). 3-D conversion: Zhang Fuzhi, Zhan Zhenyi. Executive direction: Du Lin, Bai Haoyun, Peng Sishu.
Cast: He Rundong [Peter Ho] (Li Zihao), Huang Zitao (Fang Jie), Gulnazar (Tang Qianqian), Wang Xueqi (Tang Hexuan, Qing gang leader), Chu Ja-hyeon (Lan Ruoyun), Gao Jie [Jack Kao] (Ye Qishan, Hong gang leader), Huo Qing (Fu Sheng, Tang Hexuan’s deputy), Jonathan Kos-Read (Owen, French consul-general), Miura Kenichi (Takada Jiro), Yao Anlian (Luo), Zong Xiaojun (Lu, gang boss), Chen Sanmu (Huang, gang boss), Cao Bo (Zhao Yan), Cao Xige (Huang Fu), Gao Yuxing (young Tang Qianqian), Cai Gang (nightclub MC), Shi Peng (Ma San, gang leader), Gao Xixi (Black gang leader), Li Fangyao (gangster).
Release: China, 10 Feb 2017.