Peter Huo, Guli Nazha, and Huang Zitao star in the 2017 Chinese gangster film The Game Changer. It’s rife with all the usual elements of a piece of cinematography focused on the urban underworld: double-crossing allies, men in fedoras, and lots of gunfights. To add to the urban atmosphere is the film’s setting: 1930’s Shanghai. Sounds promising? Let’s see if this movie manages to be a “game changer” in its genre.
Chinese Name: 游戏规则
Release Date: February 10, 2017
Director: Gao Xixi
Genre: action, crime
Running Time: 140 minutes
Reccommended For: someone looking for a darker toned action flick, gangster movie fans
NOT Reccommended For: people averse to watching other people get shot, those looking for a light-hearted or heartwarming film
Peter Huo as Lin Zihao
Huang Zitao as Fang Jie
Guli Nazha as Tang Qianqian
Wang Xueqi as Tang Hexuan
Choo Jahyun as Lan Ruoyun
Set in the vibrant city of Shanghai in the 1930s, The Game Changer tells the story of Lin Zihao, a man bent on revenge against the crime lord Tang Hexuan, head of the Shanghai Bund. Zihao was a former member of the Blue Shirts Society before he was imprisoned during an attack on his fellow members and students at the command of Tang Hexuan. However, in a chance encounter, Zihao is freed by a man named Fang Jie, and the two men aid in each other’s escape from the prisoner they were both being held in.
One more coincidental meeting later, Fang Jie is found to be Tang Hexuan’s right-hand man who was taken in as an orphan and raised as his own son. For saving Fang Jie and Hexuan’s daughter Tang Qianqian’s life, Zihao himself is offered a place in Tang Hexuan’s subordinates as Fang Jie’s brother, which he takes with hopes of killing the gang leader in due time. Lin Zihao is not the only man in Shanghai out for Tang Hexuan’s blood however, and Hexuan formulates a plan to end his opponents by faking his own death. His plan hinges on one person, however, and this person may be the man who – unbeknownst to him – hates Hexuan the most: Lin Zihao. The complicated loyalties between these men are thrown further into question when Hexuan’s daughter falls in love with Zihao, and Zihao’s lover from his Blue Shirts Society days reappears in his life after he believed her dead.
While the The Game Changer finds its inspiration in the 80’s TV series entitled The Bund, I will only be making judgement on the film based on the material presented in the movie. I’m sure the context of the series would be helpful, but alas I have not seen it, so my interpretation of solely the film events is what I’ll share.
I will say now: I am a huge gangster movie enthusiast. To the point where my favorite movie of all time happens to be The Godfather Part II. There’s something about watching men in long black coats stab each other in the back, figuratively and and perhaps literally, that some part of me is enticed by. So when I saw that The Game Changer revolved around the gang conflicts of 1930’s Shanghai and featured Huang Zitao, who I have such a soft spot, I was excited. After watching the film itself though, I have to admit I have mixed feelings.
With its over two hour run time, The Game Changer needed a way to keep the pace fast and audience interested. And it managed to do this with its fairly even spacing of action-filled sequences, from the prison escape scene that gave a film its running start to the explosive ending. In fact, the action was so present in the film that it sometimes feels a little too much like a 21st century action movie trying to invoke the early 1900s. Only instead of high speed car chases, we get bicycle chases through the crowded streets of Shanghai. Which is still all sorts of fun, don’t get me wrong. But besides the absolutely beautiful costume and set design, the way the story was presented sometimes came across as noticeably modern to me.
Something that was, however, rather fitting with the times was the alcohol consumption of the characters. The drinking did suit the time period and setting of the film and wasn’t off-putting from a realistic viewpoint. But the proximity of two very similar scenes involving two different women professing their feelings for Zihao with the help of some liquid confidence was a bit problematic to me. It almost feels like they were set up as parallels to each other. But if that was the director’s intent, I’m not quite sure what kind of feeling it left me with. Frustration, maybe. Because these two scenes only highlight how exceptionally different the two female leads are, and it leaves Tang Qianqian squarely in the dust with regard to her charm and reliability. But more on those characters later.
My biggest complaint with the actual screenplay of the The Game Changer would be the tendency for important events to happen off screen and we as the audience were just forced to except it. Without going into major spoiler territory, I found myself mildly confused by certain events and questioning the mere physicality of other ones. Questions like: “When did Qianqian become qualified to doctor bullet holes?” and “Is is physically possible to catch someone falling outside your window one-handed?” and the like. So either I wasn’t quite picking up what the director was putting down or there were some gaps in the story that needed some actual attention.
I’m going to look at Lin Zihao as a character first because for all intents and purposes it was really just him and Tang Hexuan driving the story. And while Zihao was definitely the most active individual, propelling the plot forward with his decisions, he was somewhat unremarkable as a character. Or maybe this phenomenon could be explained as him being so remarkable, he’s unremarkable. Because he is a bonafide one-man army when he’s got a few guns on him, and has both female leads falling or fallen for him before the movie is a quarter of the way through.
I think most of his appeal can be summed up in the scene where Fang Jie tells Zihao, “The more dull you are, the more women love you.” It made me hope that the writers were somewhat self-aware that their protagonist had a somewhat dull personality. I wouldn’t call him a wet dishcloth or anything. But he was definitely… damp. Zihao was obviously a skilled fighter gun-slinging badass who was devoted to his cause, but his tendency to keep a constant stern expression and not speak much made him a bit wooden to me. And that wasn’t due to Peter Huo’s actual performance. It was just that Zihao fell flat as a character and felt more like a stoic hero archetype than someone I could really connect to.
Instead, Fang Jie seemed to be the more dynamic of the two men in this brotherhood. He was a bit hotheaded – immature and yet still entirely lethal – but it managed to make him interesting rather than annoying. While he was in love with Qianqian, I really appreciated how his major struggle didn’t boil down to a fued with his brother Zihao over a girl. The writers make sure to illustrate the exact opposite in fact. Fang Jie’s loyalties lie with his foster father Tang Hexuan, despite the somewhat twisted nature of their relationship, and he was confronted with the decision to chose between standing by his father or brother, two men he shared no blood ties with. And this made his internal conflict the most compelling subplot of the story to me personally.
Returning to what I was saying earlier, I did find Tang Qianqian to be fairly unlikeable as a female lead. It didn’t really help that not even minutes after her character is introduced to the story she is already being kidnapped and then almost immediately rescued by Lin Zihao. While this scene may have made a good backdrop for her immediate infatuation with him, it didn’t really endear me to her as a character. Or make me believe she was someone that could hold their own weight in a such a high stakes world, woman or not. It isn’t really until the last fourth of the film where we get to see her actively confronting enemies and making decisions for herself. Whereas even in just the backstory of Lan Ruoyun I had a deeper respect for her an active member of an organization she would risk her own safety for, the Blue Shirts Society. It was actually really disappointing to see the only interaction between these two women be a single, unnecessarily confrontational (on Qianqian’s part) meeting. And in essence, all they did was glare at each other and throw a few jabs because of their romantic ties to Zihao. One thing’s for sure: this movie certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.
Where the actual screenplay falls short, I feel that the cast of The Game Changer made up for it with their performances. I have to commend all the actors and actresses involved because they all stepped up in their roles, no matter how lacking the actual characters were. And while Zihao was a bit of a wooden character, Peter Huo did an excellent job of showing his emotion in the rare scenes where he didn’t just need a stern, focused expression on his face.
Huang Zitao especially, was able to portray the kind of nuanced emotion rookie actors like him sometimes struggle with. His character was probably the most emotionally charged of the bunch, and the quickest to react to things, so I feel that he had the chance to actual show a range of emotion. And he certainly took advantage of this, ranging from cocky and confident with his place in the world, to devastated with the decisions that are eventually forced on him.
I was also happy with the performance of Guli Nazha as Tang Qianqian, despite my dislike for her character. Most of my praise comes from her appearance in the second half of the movie because, like her character, this is where more of skill as an actress was actually demanded. Or at least where I significant amount of emotion was needed in her portrayal. And Choo Jahyun as Lan Ruoyun actually really impressed me, to the point where I wish she was featured in the movie for longer than her actual appearance. Her scene reuniting with Lin Zihao in the jazz club backstage was probably one of the more emotional ones in the movie. And the way her character went from a very near mental breakdown to calm jazz singer in a matter of minutes was quite satisfying to watch, in that it emphasized the gap between the two emotional states.
Wang Xueqi as Tang Hexuan didn’t really need to showcase a wide range of emotions because his character was basically just big bossman who was a calm yet intimidating figure. And while I feel like he lacked a certain presence that some other film gangster bosses manged to capture, he wasn’t bad in his role by any means. It was easy to get the sense that his character was cold and had long since detached himself from attachments in pursuit of power and stability at the top of the Shanghai bund.
Slow motion was a bit overutilized in this film. To the point where I found myself wishing there would be at least one action sequence in the story somewhere that didn’t have slow motion punches or window-crashing thrown in for good measure. As a whole though, the action scenes were tastefully done and when they weren’t moving in slow motion, things were happening in rapid fire succession. I wouldn’t consider them particularly gory, but if you are squeamish about blood in some way, perhaps The Game Changer is not for you.
I will say, though this may be nitpicking, that I found a few of the transitions between majors scenes to be jarring. Not jarring in way that felt intentional however, but more like the director just wasn’t sure how to make an effective bridge between two events. There were a number of “fade to black” transitions between unrelated scenes that I just found to be clunky. It was like the writer’s had all the pieces to make an interesting story but couldn’t piece them together in a way that felt seamless or entirely natural.
Overall though, the film was shot very nicely. Besides some questionable CGI, nothing about it gave the impression of a low budget or haphazard planning. In fact, the cinematography was so nice it very nearly convinced me this film was better than its shoddy storytelling really belayed. Filming in the rain, and water in general, was a very clear motif in The Game Changer. It gave the film a unified image with how many significant events occurred on rainy days or under a downpour. This was most evident with the beginning and ending of the movie but would crop up in other parts of the plot along the way. And I appreciated the effort to maintain this motif. Its overall effect was compelling to watch in a movie with a rather dark color palette to begin with.
The music in The Game Changer does a good job of staying within that 30s sound for the most part. The scenes in the club, in particular, featured some jazzy tunes that really suited the era and captured that characteristic sound. However, for some of the more instrumental pieces used during action sequences, music definitely went the more modern route. There are few blaring Inception-like horn instrumentals thrown in with some action sequences that seemed a bit of place, but it’s not overly distracting. I would have liked the sound direction to stay within its time frame, and it could have definitely been worked in, but it’s nothing I really want to nitpick about.
I suppose I could also point out the the lines are dubbed in this movie, as a forewarning. But they are dubbed well, so unless you are extremely adverse to dubbing I don’t think it would cause any issues. Both the actors and voice actors made it rather easy to forget it was two different people appearing in the movie at the same time for a given character.
Brotherhood, loyalty, justice all featured as the primary themes of The Game Changer. Each of the characters are driven by their own motivation but it almost always harkens back to loyalties, be it through romantic ones or more platonic friendships. The brotherhood was more compelling than the romance to me, but even that feels a bit slipshod at times. Or at least the foundation of it did. As the story progressed and loyalties were finally thrown into question, this begins the real reflection of these men and women’s internal conflicts.
Overall The Game Changer is a rather dark movie. It’s dark in tone, and in subject matter. The ending did give me a bit of a feeling like: “What was it all for then?” but I feel like this was the goal of the director in any sense. It’s not uplifting by any means, but then again I don’t really think people who set out to watch a gangster movie are looking for a feel-good tale of romance or comedy.
So in conclusion, I was mostly impressed by the design of the film, but the actual plot left me a bit unenthused. I wanted to love it but, somewhat ironically, The Game Changer didn’t really offer something thrillingly new to the table in terms of gangster movies. And while I enjoyed watching it, I’m not sure it’s something I’d take the time to watch again. Maybe if I’m in the mood for some major gun-slinging and Tao. Maybe.