Director – Shen Ao – 2022 – China – Cert. 15 – 129m
A rising star computer programmer and a dropped model are lured into working as forced labour for a fraudulent, foreign online gambling operation – out in UK cinemas on Friday, September 8th
Zhao Dongran (Yong Mei), the knowledgeable head of a well-equipped Chinese police team fighting internet fraud, gives a lecture in which she outlines the story of a top flight programmer lured into the shady world of gambling beyond China’s borders.
The talented Pan Sheng (Lay Zhang), after being passed over for a promotion in favour of a not-especially talented young relative of the boss, opts for his safety net – a job offer from a company in Singapore. Along with a number of other recruits, he boards the plane with company rep Cui (Sunny Sun from The Crossing, Bai Xue, 2018), who is in charge of them, but in Singapore the deal rapidly turns sour when in an alleyway the group are rounded up by thugs with baseball bats to be transported to the corporate compound which amounts to a slave labour camp from which Lu (Eric Wang) runs an online gambling company which is in fact a scam defrauding millions of people, many of them in China.
On arrival, their passports are confiscated. The operation is run under sweatshop conditions. The shared accommodation facilities are sparse, with one man a prisoner in a cage which doesn’t allow him to stretch his body out to full length. The work is managed via the worst, largely untrue myths of exploitative, right-wing capitalism (e.g. “work hard today and one day you can be the boss”). Pan is asked to perform all manner of unethical and illegal programming tasks. Anyone not co-operating is beaten with clubs or worse by guards, while the premises are guarded by men with AK-47s.
As well as the men, the recruits also include numerous impossibly beautiful women (well, this a Far Eastern movie where that seems to be the norm) such as Liang Anna (Gina Jin), a former top model who has lost her contract when her employers discovered her prior online sex work career which didn’t sit well with their brand. She is now trapped in the compound as an online croupier, convincing punters to play.
The company’s strategy is to lure players in by letting them win at first , then, once they’re hooked, sting them, sometime for millions. For instance, in the world outside, innocent Song Yu (Zhou Ye, from Better Days, Derek Tsang, 2019) watches her boyfriend Gu Tianzhi (Darren Wang) commit suicide by throwing himself off a high rise balcony when he can see no way out of his huge personal debts after being defrauded of some eight million.
As you might be able to tell, the screenplay crams several different stories into an overlong film which ultimately, for its final third, defaults to the brief, opening story of Zhao’s police crack force attempting to shut down the illegal, foreign operation. This last section is, on the one hand, the most satisfying because director Shen seems to know how to pull off narrative closure in this strand where other storylines feel like they could continue on interminably and, on the other, the least satisfying because there’s something not quite believable in the idea that the Chinese State and police always come though in the end, free the victims, solve crimes and catch the perpetrators, even in foreign cases outside their jurisdiction. But I guess if you write a script to this effect, the authorities (who vet films in China) will like it.
That said, Yong Mei is terrific as the expert cop, lending the character a genuine gravitas even as the narrative does its best to render the character routine. The criminals and their violent antics feel like the director has watched rather too many Chinese action crime movies, but their victims both in terms of the workforce and the punters are more convincing. Certain scenes or sequences are outstanding, but in between there’s a lot of filler in a film which can’t make up its mind which of its many stories to tell or indeed to find a way of juggling numerous stories into a coherent and consistent whole. While the specifics of the online subject matter are unfamiliar (although apparently based on a growing, social problem in South East Asia), the film is nowhere near as effective as other films dealing with trafficking such as Deliver Us From Evil (Hong Won-chan, 2020) or online financial scamming such as Boiler Room (Ben Younger, 2000) or The Wolf Of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013). A curiosity, then, and something of a missed opportunity.
No More Bets is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, September 8th.