Gambling has long been part of life in China, but in a society increasingly divided by rich and poor, the Chinese have become obsessed with winning easy money.
And as gambling is illegal in China, so Hong Kong and Macau have become top destinations for Chinese gamblers.
In this Witness film, four gamblers who pin their hopes on games of luck and fortune, take us on an emotional search for belief and identity in money-centric modern China.
By Jean-Louis Schuller and Sam Blair
Jean-Louis Schuller and I became intrigued by Hong Kong’s obsession with money and wealth whilst we were making another film there.
Hong Kong is built on and bloated by banking, trade and consumer culture. We wondered how that affected the lives that we saw in the never-ending lines of tower blocks and the daily crush on the streets. We found our answer in the obsession with gambling that is endemic in the city and even more so in neighbouring Macau, which had recently overtaken Las Vegas as the casino capital of the world – discovering a deeply troubling culture of increasing speculation, addiction and debt. We were compelled to return and make a film that got beneath Hong Kong and Macau’s surface gloss and into the heart of this phenomenon.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in making the film was finding people willing to talk about their lives.
In China, “saving face” (maintaining personal reputation and honour) is incredibly important so opening up and telling the world about your problems is not the norm, quite the opposite. Obviously for documentary filmmakers this is problematic.
We started out by visiting the numerous church-based groups set up to try and counter the wave of gambling addiction. These churches, tucked away in true Hong Kong style on the 15th floor of a tower block, offered counselling and spiritual guidance to the increasing number of people who were in incredibly perilous situations after gambling away extraordinary amounts of money.
Michael, a taxi driver, was one such character. He had his quiet family life shattered as he gambled away tens of thousands of dollars by speculating on the stock exchange - in Hong Kong playing the stocks is simply another way to gamble for some. We were intrigued to find out how a modest man like Michael lost control and risked so much. We also wanted to find out what motivated him to act in this way. Michael’s recent religious conversion compelled him to open up to us and share his amazing story.
Our biggest challenge was finding a young character, someone who was still gambling and was willing to be filmed. After many false starts, Wu, who ran a counselling centre for gamblers, introduced us about Ji, a young man he had started to help. And fortunately for us, he agreed to be filmed.
Ji worked in a kitchen but spent most of his restless energy gambling or talking about gambling. It seemed to be his only dream, his only idea of how to escape the limits of his life. Wu tried to reason with Ji and told him to find meaning in his life away from gambling. But for Ji, like so many others in Hong Kong and Macau, the allure of gambling is in the fantasy it offers – the chance to reach for a life tantalisingly out of reach, the opportunity to be one of the lucky few.