erik lundegaard

Monday September 04, 2023

Movie Review: No More Bets (2023)


The last newly released Chinese movie I saw at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle was Donnie Yen’s “Ip Man 4” in early January 2020. Then you know what happened. Wuhan, China got very, very sick. Then the world got very, very sick. Then we stopped going to movies.

This past weekend was the first time since the pandemic began that I returned to Pacific Place to see a newly released Chinese film.

It’s been a long time.

I meant less since the pandemic began and more since China produced popular films about the crazy antics (the “Detective Chinatown” series) or the heroism (“Wolf Warrior 2”) of Chinese abroad. Now the lesson is an old, familiar one: Don’t trust foreigners! They actually say that at the end of this film: Don’t trust high-paying jobs—unless they’re in China. Stay here.

The girl’s in the bag and the cat’s off the balcony
“No More Bets” is not a good movie and let’s begin with that English title. The Chinese version is <<孤注一擲>> (guzhu yizhi), which translates to “Stake All On One Throw.“ That would be a better title. How about “Roll of the Dice”? Or “Big Stakes”? Or if some mucky-muck insists on the “Bets” thing, why not “All Bets Are Off”? 

Pan Sheng (Zhang Yixing of the Chinese-Korean boy band EXO) is a rising computer programmer whose promotion is given to some nepo baby, and at first he’s like, “Whatevs, it’s all good.” A second later, he’s storming out of the company meeting, hacking his usurper’s presentation with emojis, and accepting a dream job in Singapore.

Which quickly turns into a nightmare. He and his peers barely get a moment in the “Crazy Rich Asians” city before they’re attacked in a back alley, hooded, and driven to another country. I think they call it “Canan”? The script on storefronts looks Thai but it could be Cambodian. Apologies. My SE Asian studies don’t go far.

Instead of the promised high-rise apartments they wind up in a place that is a mix of prison camp (barb wire fences, sleeping on thin mats) and modern corporation. People are routinely beaten for not toeing the line but they also have to attend gung-ho, call-and-response company meetings, where they’re extolled to do their best because they’re all on the same team. Holy fuck. Just give me the prison camp.

It’s a fraud factory, and there’s a whole bunch of data mining and data scraping going on. Here’s the real oddity: Pan is prized for his programming/hacking skills but he tries to escape by writing messages? On paper? I mean, I could do that. The first one he has to swallow in the toilet to avoid detection; the second, on a US$20 bill, gets everyone into trouble. Can’t he just, I don’t know, hide a message in a computer program?

A lot of the fraud involves online gambling, with hot, well-dressed ladies at card tables enticing online schnooks into betting the house. One of these women, Liang Anna (Gina Jin), helps Pan, or he helps her, but either way we then get her backstory. She was a fashion model in mainland China but her photo somehow wound up on a scandalous site, and rather than her company suing the bastards they think she’s at fault and drop her like a hot potato. Then a friend suggests the international gig. 

Then we get the story of one of the schnooks, a recent grad named Tian (Taiwanese actor Talu Wang), who, maybe because of Liang’s photo, or just because he already has that predilection, gets suckered into online gambling. He does OK for a bit, then not, then suddenly it’s really, really bad, and his girlfriend, Song (Zhou Ye), is worried. At one point, gangsters show up at his family’s apartment to demand debts he owes, and to show they mean business they throw his cat over the high-rise balcony.

That’s the moment the movie lost me. We still get another 10-15 minutes of his handwringing, histrionic downfall, but I could give a fuck. Dude, you caused the death of your cat. If that doesn’t wake you up, nothing will.

(I'm serious, btw.)

Anyway, things get so bad he flops off a balcony voluntarily and winds up in a coma. Song tries to find the people responsible for his addiction, but the police, even the kindly Zhao Dongran (Young Mei), are mostly ineffectual. Meanwhile, abroad, various attempts at escape from the prison/company lead to various punishments. The main bad guy, Lu (Eric Wang), improbably takes a shine to Pan, and then, less improbably, toward Liang, in a different, more earthy way. For the latter, I gotta say: What took him so long? Why are these guys even kidnapping models in the first place if not for the sex? All the women do is sit at Vegas-like gambling tables and motion toward cards or chips or what have you, and couldn’t you deep fake that? I get why you need Pan but not why you need Liang.

After Pan owns up to writing on the US$20 bill, his leg is broken and he’s put in a small cage. Liang tries to escape on a bus but is betrayed by the cops, dragged to the waterfront, stuffed into a sack with stones, and tossed into the sea. The girl’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river. At least it wasn’t a cat.

How does she escape? She’s pulled back up with a crane because Lu’s right-hand man, An (Sunny Sun), heretofore a sadistic asshole, doesn’t want her to die. Does he have a crush on her? Is he developing a conscience? We get no clue. It comes out of nowhere.

Working levers
Ultimately, Liang finds her way back to China, and, reluctantly, into Police Zhao’s task force, which returns to the SE Asian country to finally put a stop to it. Takes a while. One moment they’re disciplined and effectual, the next a step behind the bad guys. Rather than scenario writers, I imagine CCP members working levers. ”Well, we can’t show the police as incompetent … but we do need people to take this issue seriously, so..."

In the end, amid histrionics and melodrama, the factory is raided and the bad guys brought to justice—including Liang. Yes. She gets two years, or two years probation, or something, even though she was a victim through it all. Pan’s sentence is commuted because he helped break the case. But he’ll have a limp for the rest of his days. 

Despite the melodrama, the story is “ripped from the headlines,” as they used to say. You can read the BBC report on Cambodian fraud factories here, and the closing credits include blurred-out interviews with real-life victims. Apparently fraud factories are a lucrative business. Also movies about fraud factories. This thing was released in China less than a month ago and it’s already grossed nearly half a billion U.S. That said, how does one view box office from a government-controlled movie industry? Did this one get a bigger push because they wanted its message out there? I imagine CCP members working levers.

Posted at 07:55 AM on Monday September 04, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2023  
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