No More Bets - Cover
Still from: "No More Bets"
FILM

High Stakes: The Art and Agenda of Shen Ao’s Scam Trade Thriller “No More Bets”

Despite its financial success in China, the plot of Shen Ao’s “No More Bets” hamstrings the social message it wants to get across

Stories of borderland deceit have made frequent headlines in the Chinese media in recent years. Young men and women exchange their meager life savings for the promise of being spirited through the Myanmar jungle to what they believe will be lucrative employment, only to discover that they have been locked into servitude in the industrial-scale scam operations being run south of the border.

The victims of human traffickers are forced, in turn, to victimize others. To earn their keep and escape beatings at the hands of supervisors, they must ensnare countrymen—the elderly, often, or the lonely and isolated—in fraud schemes that play on their emotions and fears. Their reward for draining bank accounts with romance scams or rigged online casinos is minimal, as most of the money flows to organized crime or local governments on the take.

The Sichuan native Li Lifen, for example, made headlines in 2022 after getting arrested for her online romance scams south of the border—taking on false online identities to convince lovelorn marks to sign over their life savings. Last year alone, over 30,000 Chinese nationals involved in cybercrime were turned over to Chinese police by local authorities in Myanmar and other countries.

These are the headlines from which No More Bets has ripped. But despite its financial success in China (earning 2.2 billion yuan in its first 10 days), the plot hamstrings the anti-fraud message the film wants to get across.

Plotting to fail

In No More Bets, scammers ensnare the programmer Pan Sheng (played by K-pop idol Lay Zhang) at a major technology firm (meant to resemble Alibaba). Overlooked for a promotion, he is in search of fresh opportunities. After answering an advertisement for an overseas position, he winds up getting kidnapped by human traffickers. The model Anna Liang (Gina Jin) is also lured to the jungle after her career falters.

Although the country in which they are trapped is not named, both programmer and model experience something like reports out of Myanmar scam centers, with punishing work hours, unhygienic accommodations, and the constant threat of violence.

The narrative appears to be building towards our two protagonists either escaping from the scam factory or perhaps even striking a critical blow to the operation. However, the action drags as we anticipate the film’s violent denouement, which ultimately arrives with a law enforcement raid on the scam factory. 

If nobody except the police seems to have agency in the film—the scam threat arising solely from the malevolence of others, and one of the main victims (played by Darren Wang) is driven to attempt suicide—then any call to action is, at best, weak. “Stay away from fraud” seems like a pointless reminder if you are going as the cargo of a human trafficker. The film fails to say more about the power of the community to resist scammers’ ability to prey on the isolated, the hopelessness that comes with youth unemployment, or even the need to build bridges between social classes and generations.

Chinese film No More Bets, film about overseas crime happening in China

An Juncai, a scammer from No More Bets, played by Sun Yang (film still)

While the film is not unlike other contemporary social problem pictures, such as Wen Muye’s Dying to Survive (2018) about leukemia patients importing drugs from India, or even Li Yang’s Blind Mountain (2007), about bride trafficking, the sudden intrusion of the police to deliver a happy ending sets it apart from them. And it becomes clear as the credits roll that this film has other intentions.

After a title card that explains Chinese police efforts to crack down on overseas fraud operations, the names of the head gaffer, the caterer, and the assistant to the director scroll by beside news footage of hooded and shackled alleged fraudsters and operators of illegal casinos boarding planes back to China, repatriated by the organs of state security.

This is a film that carries an official message—“Don’t get scammed,” or, more directly, “Stay out of Myanmar.” It is also part of a larger program to spread this message, which includes reporting on state television, education campaigns in borderland provinces, public service announcements, publicity efforts on Chinese social media—as well as film and television plots like this one.

The level of artistry on screen in No More Bets sets it apart from 2022’s Butcher Hunter, a box-office bomb on the same themes, with police smashing up a fraud operation in an unnamed Southeast Asian country.

While Butcher Hunter shows us some of the same scenes of illegal online casino operations in locked office parks and human traffickers in sunny Southeast Asian locations, it is an action flick that treats the subject matter mostly as an excuse to show sexy, dignified cops thwarting malevolent forces. The victims do not appear, and the low-level operators in the scam industry are unimportant.

But it is debatable whether or not No More Bets lives up to earlier moral panic public service announcements, like Broken Dreams in Nanyang from 1995, which also dealt with the problem of human trafficking on the southern frontier, and the cult classic Drug Girl (1995). These pictures could still be appreciated as entertainment, perhaps even art, but they stuck far more closely to an official message. They were propagandistic.

Chinese film No More Bets, human trafficking in China

A central criticism of the film is that the plot does not resolve itself naturally (poster for No More Bets)

Unlike No More Bets, with its scenes of office park romances and carnivalesque celebrations of big scores, these earlier films were unambiguously ugly. There are no heroes in Broken Dreams in Nanyang: Few of the girls taken across the border are saved and the human smuggler ends up bleeding out from stab wounds in an alley. Drug Girl’s frightening scenes of its protagonist driven to suicide by drugs leave no doubt that the same will happen to anyone else who puts a needle in their arm.

Artistry and agenda

This tension between message and artistry in No More Bets has hit other viewers the opposite way. They conclude that the message wins. In the words of a reviewer on Douban, where the film has a middling rating of 6.9, “It’s a great anti-fraud propaganda picture, but not a great movie.” However, this raises the question of whether a propaganda picture can be effective without being a great movie. If nobody is sold on the premise, will anybody buy the line?

Another Douban review compares it to graphic warning images of diseased lungs on packs of cigarettes, photographs of industrial accidents on factory safety posters, or gory car crash footage in driver education classes.

A central criticism of the film is the fact that the plot does not resolve itself naturally; instead, it is effectively ended by the arrival of the police. A lengthy review by Chinese film review outlet Yuemu wrote in August 2023 that the sudden appearance of the police “in the second half forces it into a ‘main melody film,’” referring to the type of movie that emphasizes official publicity leitmotifs.

Perhaps the sudden appearance of the police compromises the narrative, but it might also compromise the message, rendering it too straightforward, and too simple. The greatest social message campaigns must, in a sense, be run like the scams out of Myanmar: They need to seduce their mark, call them into solidarity, and inspire them to action, instead of obvious attempts at manipulation that may even result in what’s called defiant reactance in social psychology—the urge to do the opposite of what an authority has advised.

The failures of No More Bets as a vehicle for an official line are down to its failures as a film; the failures of No More Bets as a film are down to its failures to spread its message—although its box office success has some people nervous: The government of Myanmar has lodged complaints against the film, concerned that it will deter tourists from visiting.

SHARE:

author Dylan Levi King

Dylan Levi King is a writer and translator. His most recent translations are Cai Chongda’s “Vessel” (HarperCollins) and Jia Pingwa’s “The Shaanxi Opera” (AmazonCrossing).