A CITY CALLED MACAU (2019) short review

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Based on a 2012 novel by Yan Geling – and co-adapted for the screen by Yan herself – Li Shaohong’s A City called Macau follows Xiao Ou (Bai Baihe), a casino broker in Macau: she guides wealthy clients around the city, introducing them to games and securing loans for them. Over more than a decade (the film takes place between 2002 and 2014), two of her clients will change the course of her life: property developer Duan (Wu Gang), sucked ever deeper in debt by his gambling addiction and forever making empty promises to come clean, and sculptor Shi (Huang Jue), who goes as far as leaving his wife and child to pursue Macau’s mirage of wealth. With its ploddingly episodic structure (every time the narrative starts building steam there’s a jump forward in time), relentless explanative voice-over from Bai Baihe, trite sense of romance (walks on the beach, floating lanterns…), florid music begging you to feel, and – most damningly – thudding, repetitive storytelling (two hours of tension-free gambling and people getting in and out of debt), A City called Macau is a chore to get through. The drama is hopelessly contrived, with every single man in Xiao Ou’s life becoming a gambler (even her slapworthy son), and not one character seems worth caring for, except perhaps Chin Siu Ho’s Cat, her loyal – perhaps lovestruck – colleague. Xiao Ou herself is a strange and unlikeable mix of catty rashness and hopeless gullibility, with Bai Baihe giving a weirdly tone-deaf performance, mouth agape, permanently looking like she’s just been eating week-old sushi. Wu Gang is much more compelling, Huang Jue is livelier than his usual, and Geng Le makes the most of his short screen-time (as Bai’s ex-husband, also a degenerate gambler, of course), but their characters are merely hand-puppets for the film’s on-the-nose message on the price of gambling. Carina Lau and Eris Tsang make classy cameos; there’s a feeling the film would have been so much more interesting if it had focused on them, a steely, worldly casino owner and a tough, honorable businessman respectively. *1/2

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