Hong Kong’s top film at the box office in 1974, Games Gamblers Play, did two things: it established writer, actor and first-time director Michael Hui as a key filmmaker to watch and it also propelled local comedy toward exciting new forms. Local audiences were already familiar with Hui from his popular Hui Brothers Show on TV and the films he’d made as an actor for the Shaw Brothers studio. In Games Gamblers Play he took on a great local passion — gambling — and shook every comic possibility out of it.
The games kick off in the hills of Kowloon, where prison laborer Wen (Michael Hui) is using his gambling smarts — and cheating skills — to boost his lunchtime rations. Soon he’s joined behind bars by Chieh (brother Sam Hui), who’s been locked up after a casino theft, and the pair make plans to get rich quick. Once out of prison, they hit the dice and mahjong tables, cheat at cards and try their hand in a TV game show but none of it goes well. And when they try to sabotage an illegal betting ring in a scheme to win big at the dog races, everything goes to hell. Soon the pair have angry gangsters in pursuit of them all the way to Macau. It also doesn’t help that Wen complicates things by hiding a mistress (Betty Ting Pei) from his wife.
More than just a comedy hit, Games Gamblers Play helped revive Cantonese cinema. The local tongue had been sidelined in Hong Kong film since the rise and eventual domination of Mandarin-language cinema in the 1960s, forcing the city’s audiences to turn to TV for their Cantonese screen comedy, whether in prime time or for movie reruns. Helmer Chor Yuen stirred things up by breaking box-office records in 1973 with his comical The House of 72 Tenants, a rare Cantonese excursion for the leading Shaw studio, and when Games Gamblers Play proved even more popular, Michael Hui showed the way forward.
There’s plenty to mark out Games Gamblers Play as a debut work: the episodic structure is scrappy at times and the Hui brothers wouldn’t perfect their screen chemistry as a trio until subsequent films (in Games, brother Ricky Hui has only a small part). But in his central performance, Michael Hui’s flawed everyman character, using any means to get ahead, was the consummate crowd pleaser. As director, Hui shot in scope for maximum cinematic effect and eschewed the studio sets that were common at the time for location shoots, which added realism to the working-class story.
Deadpan humor, quick-thinking quips, sight gags and fresh-faced co-star Sam Hui playing it straight all add to the fun, as do updates of local comedy staples (scenes of women chasing adulterous husbands recall Wong Tin-lam’s Darling Stay at Home  and Chor Yuen’s Wise Wives and Foolish Husbands ). Mahjong and cards are propelled from the background to center stage and have become something Hong Kong audiences now expect in their Cantonese comedies, whether the narratives are gambling — focused or not — another lasting legacy of Games Gamblers Play.