GREAT PRETENDERS a.k.a. THE GREAT PRETENDERS is from 1991, and it’s Ronny Yu’s con man comedy. It stars the great Tony Leung (a year before HARD BOILED) in a much broader role than what we normally associate him with. The type of comedy where he’s running around waving his arms. His character has a shaved head to wear different wigs, and there’s a whole sequence about him putting the wig on the wrong way and looking ridiculous, plus a montage of trying on a bunch of other wigs. Strangely, when he pretends to have a mohawk later on it uses a very obvious bald cap. I don’t know if that was a matter of his hair growing out or not wanting to glue the mohawk on, but it’s hard to accept people believing it’s his real hair. Not that it matters in a movie like this.
His character is named Snake Wai (alias “Tony Leung”), and he’s a conman running small time scams on the street. It’s the type of movie where you follow him and hopefully are charmed by him even as he’s lying to everybody, but you won’t feel too bad about it either way because most of the time everybody’s actually in on it or secretly playing their own angle.
It’s so light-hearted that sometimes I even kinda fell for it. Maybe he’s not up to something here, maybe he’s really being sincere now? On the other hand when he said he was pulling his scams for charity, and that he stayed bald in remembrance of a girlfriend who died from cancer, I assumed the sonofabitch was lying, but I believe the first claim turns out to be true and the second is at least never invalidated.
He scopes out Susan (Lok Wai), a widow from Singapore, whose driver notes that she’s rich and beautiful. She seems to like him and you want them to really be in love, and then he convinces her to invest in a night club with him – uh oh. And next he wants to bet the money on a mahjong game against a gambler he hates named Yam Sei Sung (Simon Yam, the year after BULLET IN THE HEAD), who is unfortunately acting out a gay stereotype. Snake claims the guy has AIDS, is a wife-beater and an ass-grabber.
Snake enlists his sister, who runs mahjong scams (but not always successfully), to help rig the game, and she teaches them a system involving hand signals. I like how Yu uses split screen to match some of the signals to the dominoes they represent.
She also has tricks for rolling dice and shuffling, the latter shot from beneath a glass table so we can see she really is holding onto 8 specific tiles as she slides them around. It almost feels like an instructional film at that point, though you also look at what she’s doing and wonder how the fuck she does it!
I was not surprised that they were all in on it together, with a plan to run off with Susan’s money. What did catch me off guard (but definitely shouldn’t have) is when they realize that Susan has actually been the one scamming them all along, replacing the cash with counterfeit money and threatening to sue if they don’t return her one million dollars.
Snake’s boss Wong Seung-chin (Raymond Wong, who also wrote the movie) seems like a nice guy, who really does gamble and con for money to give to charity, and stresses out about Snake’s antics. And he convinces them all to work together to rip off a “real hog” of an insurance profiteer named Lung Choi Tan (Tin Leung, TWINKLE TWINKLE LITTLE STAR) of Hung Lee Financial Company. We see Tan lead two women on his arms from a casino to his car, then put his cigarette out in the outstretched hand of a beggar. He’s also said to be a flasher and (worse?) a beauty contest organizer.
Poor Susan has to be the honeypot – entering Tan’s beauty pageant and having dinner with him. He fixates on her boobs and shows off. I think he claims his boss provides security for Saddam Hussein? (“No worry! Under my boss’s protection, even Saddam Hussin [sic] scares no more.”)
Susan has a kid brother unfortunately named Fatty (So Hiu-lam, HAPPY GHOST V). In the Great Pretenders’ greatest act of pretend, they convince Tan that Fatty fell out a window to his death and that he’s gonna be blamed for it. The kid really does fall out the window, but bounces off a platform and back into a different window, and then the platform folds in and they throw a dummy and fake blood on the pavement below. Susan immediately starts “helping him” by bricking up the supposed body like it’s The Cask of Amontillado.
In the last act Tan recruits a guy from Taiwan to help him out. His name is Mr. Giant (Teddy Robin Kwan, later in TWIN DRAGONS, GALLANTS and DETECTIVE DEE: THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME). He’s happy to help because Wong destroyed him in a card game that opened the movie.
This is not an action movie at all, but there’s a quick fight scene that happens an hour and 15 minutes in, and another part where Mr. Giant leaps across a table with a knife and gets kicked out a high window (later shown to be the same trick they did with Fatty). This is much more about tricks and gags than battles. I like the joke that a thug profoundly offends Snake by taking off his wig and putting it on himself.
It also ends on a joke about Fatty stealing his wig. This is a gross one because the kid runs around naked with it over his crotch, and when Snake gets it back something drips down his face and he tastes it and is disgusted. I don’t think you’d get that here outside of a JACKASS movie. Cultural differences, I guess.
GREAT PRETENDERS is a pretty different movie for Yu. Broad comedy isn’t new to him, but this is the first time he’s done it without ghosts. I suppose it does have hints of his other work. There’s a bit of POSTMAN STRIKES BACK type action when Mr. Giant cuts the deck by throwing a nail file across the room and right into the cards. And I guess you could say there are traces of the CHINA WHITE internationalism via talk of going from Hong Kong to the mainland, Singapore, and Macau. Snake also says he went to school in France. (I figured he was lying, but if so that’s never verified.)
This has been a hard one to find, and I initially thought I would have to skip it, until I found a Fortune Star blu-ray with English subtitles. It’s region A too, if that matters, but it hardly ranks high in the Yu filmography, so outside of a project like mine I wouldn’t recommend expending much energy to find it. If it miraculously falls from the sky into your lap and you’re in the mood for something reasonably amusing, you know what to do.
Next week: Yu continues with the much more interesting comedy SHOGUN AND LITTLE KITCHEN.