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‘Ballad of a Small Player’ is just the latest Macao casino movie. Here are 10 more 

The casinos of Macao have been the backdrop of many movies, attracting legendary talents like Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jackie Chan
  • ‘The Ballad of a Small Player’ is the latest film to continue the tradition and will star Colin Farrell, Tilda Swinton and Fala Chen

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UPDATED: 26 Jun 2024, 9:11 am

Macao has long been a magnet for international movies, thanks to its exotic mix of cultures, world-class casinos and bags of atmosphere. Since debuting in Western cinema in the 1942 French flick, Gambling Hell, the gaming hub has not looked back, having welcomed such iconic characters as James Bond and Indiana Jones. 

The city’s popularity among filmmakers is exemplified by Cultural Affairs Bureau data cited in a South China Morning Post report, which shows that roughly 110 film applications are made in the SAR each year. Most of these come from Hong Kong productions, although mainland, Taiwanese and Japanese features can also be found in the mix – along with movies from further afield.

[See more: 50 years of film: 12 of the best movies filmed in Macao]

This summer, Macao is set to continue its long-running tradition as a popular film destination when the Netflix adaptation of the 2014 novel The Ballad of a Small Player begins shooting across the city’s various casinos. Directed by Edward Berger, who is best known for his Oscar-winning film, All Quiet on the Western Front, the movie will recount the story of a gambling addict in Macao with an all-star cast that includes Colin Farrell, Tilda Swinton and Fala Chen. 

While production of The Ballad of a Small Player is imminent, there could still be a significant wait before the film finally graces our screens. In the meantime, why not check some other great films that also use Macao’s glitzy casinos as a backdrop? 

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) 

Director: Guy Hamilton
Cast: Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland
Language: English

Despite 007’s legendary fondness for gambling, the James Bond movie franchise has only featured Macao twice over the course of its more than 60 years of history and 24 films. The later appearance was in the 23rd film in the series, Skyfall (2012), although that iteration doesn’t technically count, as the fictional “Floating Dragon Casino,” purportedly in Macao and complete with Komodo Dragons, was nothing more than a film set constructed at Pinewood Studios in the UK. It nonetheless pays homage to the real life floating casino, Macau Palace, which makes its appearance in the ninth film, The Man with the Golden Gun

[See more: Is Aaron Taylor-Johnson going to be the next 007?]

In that film, the Roger Moore incarnation of James Bond is on the hunt for a deadly assassin that wields a golden gun. The journey takes Bond to Macao where he finds a Portuguese gun expert who leads him to Macau Palace, a floating casino in the Inner Harbour area. While the casino’s glory days are well and truly over, plans are currently underway to transform the vessel into a dining and shopping attraction. 

遊龍戲鳳 Look for a Star (2009)

Director: Andrew Lau
Cast: Andy Lau, Shu Qi, Zhang Hanyu
Language: Cantonese and Mandarin

This romantic comedy that sees Hong Kong icon Andy Lau take on the role of Sam, a billionaire businessman who falls in love with Milan, a baccarat dealer and cabaret dancer played by Shu Qi. Coincidentally, Milan works at Sam’s Macao casino, but is unaware of his true identity, believing him to be another ordinary punter – and, naturally, hijinks ensue. The film also features two subplots that involve a pair of Sam’s subordinates who are also trying to find love. 

If the love story between Sam and Milan sounds familiar, it’s because the plot was reportedly based on the relationship between Macao gambling king Stanley Ho and his fourth wife Angela Leong, who, like her fictional counterpart, was working at a casino and dabbled in dancing. 

[See more: In conversation with Mike Ao Ieong, the director of Macao’s first locally made R-rated movie]

A significant amount of the film was shot at MGM Macau, with the integrated resort’s VIP lobby, luxury suites and gaming rooms all making an appearance. In fact, over 200 hotel staff participated in the movie. The film also strives to showcase the more historic side of Macao by featuring scenes with the Guia Lighthouse, the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier and Long Wa Tea House. 

Fans of Andy Lau won’t have to wait too long to see him back in the city, as the 62-year-old celebrity is scheduled to make a stop in the SAR for his “Today is the Day” concert at the  Galaxy Arena in October. 

Johnny English Reborn (2011) 

Director: Oliver Parker
Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Gillian Anderson, Dominic West 
Language: English and Mandarin

A sequel to the 2003 James Bond parody, Johnny English Reborn stars Rowan “Mr. Bean” Atkinson as the UK’s most inept spy, tasked with foiling a group of international criminals who are looking to assassinate the Chinese premier this time around. 

While much of the action is based in England, English’s mission does take him to Macao where he visits the Grand Lisboa casino and tries his hand at a short-lived game of roulette. Unfortunately, the scene doesn’t last long, as English and his co-agent quickly head over to Hong Kong. 

[See more: Colin Farrell and Tilda Swinton are among top stars shooting a Netflix film in Macao]

Johnny English Reborn, however, would not be the last time that Atikinson would appear in Macao on the big screen. In 2017, he returned to the SAR or more specifically Galaxy Macau for a cameo as Mr. Bean in a mainland Chinese film called Top Funny Comedian: The Movie, which stars legendary Chinese crosstalk comedian Guo Degang. Although the film has been described as the Chinese version of The Hangover, it failed to achieve the same level of success as its American counterpart, earning a score of just 2.6 out of 10 on Douban (the Chinese version of IMDB). 

The Audition (2015) 

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, Brad Pitt
Language: English

Rumoured to have cost an eye watering US$70 million, this 16-minute film was directed by legendary director Martin Scorsese and stars Hollywood A-listers Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, as well as Brad Pitt in a cameo role. Part pop culture satire and advertisement, the Audition features DiCaprio and DeNiro playing fictionalised versions of themselves as they vie to earn the lead role in Scorsese’s new film in a journey that takes them to Manila, Macao and Japan. 

Much of the action takes place in Studio City, which is fitting, given that the project was intended to be a promotional short for the integrated resort, which opened the same year in October. Ironically, production took place in less than a week and entirely in New York, as Studio City had not completed construction. As a result, a combination of sets and CGI are used to substitute for the casino. 

[See more: In conversation with Marco Müller: Fostering new talent at Macao’s film festival]

Upon its release, the film received a mixed response, with some critics praising it for its tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, and others criticising the project as a shallow cash grab. Scorsese, however, defended the project, stating in a Los Angeles Times report that “a short film is even tougher in a way…It has to be contained in and of itself.” Make your own judgement by watching it above. 

The Thieves (2012) 

Director: Choi Dong-hoon
Cast: Kim Yoon-seok, Kim Hye-soo, Lee Jung-jae
Language: Korean, Japanese, English, Mandarin and Cantonese

On the surface, The Thieves appears to have a fairly straightforward plot that involves a group of nine criminals from South Korea and Hong Kong who have been brought together by a master thief named Macao Park to steal a diamond worth US$20 million from a casino. The director, Choi Dong-hoon, however, layers the film with complexity by having the thieves distrustful of each other, as well as fleshing out their backstories. 

Much of the heist action was filmed at the City of Dreams, with one particularly thrilling scene involving Jun Ji-hyun of My Sassy Girl (2001) fame scaling the building. 

“It was imperative that we shoot the film in a real casino to be believable,” said Choi in a promotional video. 

[See more: Nine local films are having their premiere at the end of this month]

Much like any other productions, the crew faced various challenges, especially during their shoot in the casino. Kim Yoon-seok, who played Macao Park, mentioned that during a fight scene with Lee Jung-jae’s character, he had to deal with distractions from the non-actors around them who would shout, clap and laugh. Actress Kim Hae-sook, on the other hand, found that she was struggling to complete a scene under a time constraint as she kept hitting the jackpot on the slot machine, even though her character was meant to be losing. 

激戰 Unbeatable (2012) 

Director: Dante Lam
Cast: Nick Cheung, Eddie Peng, Mei Ting
Language: Cantonese and Mandarin

Reminiscent of Rocky in that it tells the story of a down-on-his luck boxer who is given an opportunity to make amends in his life, Hong Kong film Unbeatable is set almost entirely in Macao and has actor Nick Cheung play Ching Fai, a deadbeat pugilist who strives to redeem himself by taking part in mixed martial arts (MMA). 

Although much of the film is set outside of Macao’s casinos, in locations such as Hac Sa Beach and Kiang Wu Hospital, the film’s MMA matches do take place in the Grand Lisboa. Towards the end of the film, there is also a heartfelt goodbye scene featuring the exterior of the casino resort as the backdrop.  

[See more: What is The Ballad of a Small Player, the book that will be adapted into Netflix’s Macao movie?]

The film was a critical and commercial success when it was released, with lovehkfilm.com’s Kevin Ma writing that it is “one of the best visual portraits of Macao in recent memory” and “a character-driven drama about three troubled souls in Macao.” 

For his commitment to the role, which required bulking up and intense training, the then 48-year-old Cheung deservedly won the Best Actor Award at the 33rd Hong Kong Film Awards.

賭城風雲系列 From Vegas to Macao trilogy (2014-2018)

Director: Wong Jing/Andrew Lau
Cast: Chow Yun-fat, Nicholas Tse, Jing Tian
Language: Cantonese and Mandarin

Directed by prolific Hong Kong director Wong Jing, the three movies that make up the From Vegas to Macao series follow the adventures of Ken Shek, a legendary gambler who finds himself at odds with a criminal syndicate called DOA, which he attempts to bring down with the help of his family and friends. 

Macao is featured in all three films to varying degrees, with many of the casino scenes having been shot at the Venetian. In the third film, the opening wedding scene takes place at Studio City.

[See more: A guide to Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung movie locations in Macao]

Released during the Chinese New Year holiday period, the films proved to be a major box office success in China, with the third movie earning a total of 1.1 billion yuan against a budget of 250 million yuan. 

Despite critics lambasting the films for their crass humour and incoherent plotlines, audience members were generally won over by the movies’ lightheartedness, Hong Kong pop culture references and all-star cast, which included Chow Yun-fat, Nicholas Tse, Nick Cheung, Li Yuchun and Andy Lau. Chow would return to Macao again in 2023’s One More Chance in which he played against type by taking on the role of a deadbeat gambler. 

Now You See Me 2 (2016) 

Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Daniel Radcliffe
Language: English

A team of four street magicians known as the Four Horsemen, who use their skills to conduct seemingly impossible heists, is the premise of Now You See Me 2. The sequel takes the crew from the US to Macao, where they are tasked with having to steal a computer chip on behalf of a wealthy young businessman. 

The film makes good use of its Macao setting with scenes in iconic locations such as Sands Macao Hotel and the Venetian, where the production team shot for several days. In a statement about the film, Sands China said that the “scenes were shot in a variety of locations, including the neon-signed rooftop of Sands Macao and the Great Hall of The Venetian Macao with its iconic curved escalators.”

[See more: Remembering Michael Rogge, the YouTuber who preserved old Macao through film]

In addition to the casinos, the film crew also shot at the Macao Science Museum, Rua da Felicidade, Rua da Tercena and even a fictionalised version of Iong’s Magic Shop. Although the production went out of its way to film mostly on location in the city, many of the interior scenes, including the ones featuring Taipa Market and the Science Centre, were filmed on sound stages in the UK. 

In his explanation of his choice of Macao as a setting, the director Jon M. Chu said in a behind the scene video that “we actually designed a street that we could possibly build in London to emulate what Macao would look like … but once we got to Macao, [we realised] you cannot build this. This is amazing. The layers of age and dirt and culture … It was just, ‘Let’s turn the camera on and put Woody Harrelson here’.” 

Skiptrace (2016)

Director: Renny Harlin
Cast: Jackie Chan, Johnny Knoxville, Fan Bingbing 
Language: English and Mandarin

Jackie Chan is no stranger to Macao, having shot in the city’s historic sites several times in the past for projects such as Project A (1983) and Miracles (1989). The celebrated action star made his return to the SAR with the buddy cop film, Skiptrace, which saw him take on the role of a Hong Kong policeman who tries to bring down a Chinese crime lord by working alongside an American gambler played by Johnny Knoxville.

[See more: A show directed by Zhang Yimou takes up residency at MGM Cotai this year]

The globetrotting film was partially shot in MGM Macau and features Knoxville, as well as actress Fan Bingbing, performing against the backdrop of MGM Macau’s gaming area, Villa, and VIP and main hotel lobbies. 

In a 2014 interview with local media during the shoot, Chan revealed that his history with Macao could be traced back to around four decades. “I knew Macao so well when it had only one casino,” he said. “Today it’s totally different.” The director of the film, Renny Harlin, who had never been to Macao before the shoot, also made mention of Chan’s enthusiasm for the city, noting that “When I first met Jackie, the first thing he was talking about was Macao…he said, ‘You have to see Macao, it’s so fantastic’.” 

媽閣是座城 A City Called Macau (2019)

Director: Li Shaohong
Cast: Bai Baihe, Huang Jue, Carina Lau
Language: Mandarin and Cantonese

Chinese starlet Bai Baihe stars as a Beijinger named Mei Xiaoou who works in the SAR as a casino broker – a go-between for the casinos and wealthy patrons – in this 2019 flick. The action takes place during key moments in Macao’s history between 1999 and 2014, and follows Xiaoou and her entanglement with three men who turn out to be compulsive gamblers. 

Based on the book by renowned Chinese author Yan Geling, A City Called Macao is jam packed with multiple SAR locations, including the Ruins of St Paul, Macao Airport and the casinos at the Lisboa, Grand Lisboa and Venetian. 

[See more: Acclaimed Macao feature film goes on local release]

According to a report by the Beijing News that was published shortly before the film’s release, the shoot in the casinos proved to be challenging as they were open 24-hours, meaning that the crew had to deal with real-life guests who would gradually form crowds around the scene. To make matters worse, production took place during Typhoon Hato in 2017, which resulted in half of the crew being stuck in Zhuhai. 

UPDATED: 26 Jun 2024, 9:11 am

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