Close Encounter of Mahjong
China, 2011, colour, 16:9, 75 mins.
Director: Li Minghang 李明航.
Black comedy centred on a majiang game in a small flat is an entertaining indie debut.
A flat, somewhere in northern China, the present day. Five people are sitting round a table playing mahjong one hot summer afternoon: pipe-smoking Liu (Zheng Yaodong), the owner of the flat; bald Yan (Chen Wei), a superstitious gambler; Mo (Yuan Zifu), a health-products salesman; and Cindy (Tang Ke), who is playing alongside a westerner (Adam Palin) who’s funding her. Liu is worried by something he’s hidden under the sofa – the blood-stained body of his nagging wife (Yao Xingzhu). Liu and Cindy, who are actually husband-and-wife, are running a secret scam. And Mo, who needs to sell RMB400 more of his products today to get a promotion to manager, guesses what they are up to. Yan’s “luck” runs fine until 17:00, at which time a fortune-teller has told him things will start to go wrong.
Originally developed as a 2008 short with a mostly different cast, Close Encounter of Mahjong 麻局 is an impressive calling-card by Beijing-based writer-producer-director Li Minghang 李明航, a graduate of California State University Fullerton, that doesn’t go down the usual Mainland indie route of grungy/arty cinema showing his country’s bleaker side. For his first feature Li has set himself the hardest task: a black comedy, almost entirely set in a small flat and around a majiang table, that’s driven by dialogue and situational humour, and shot on a tiny budget. The small miracle is that, apart from a slight dip halfway through when the film starts to repeat itself, he pretty much succeeds. And the black comedy, peppered with plot reversals, also works.
Decked out with a Beijing Opera-like music track of string and percussive riffs which succinctly build atmosphere, the film starts when the game is already in progress, and in its dense first five minutes sketches everything the viewer needs to know about the characters and set-up: the nervous owner of the flat, the body under the sofa, the scam between two members of the group, and the hairline fractures which are soon to become major chasms. Using brief B&W flashbacks, breaks in the game to take the action away from the table, and editing and camerawork which is both precise and (for a no-budget production) quite elaborate, Li shows he has a potential talent for both audience-friendly work and something bigger.
Apart from the role of the foreigner, who’s mostly limited to saying “What’s going on?”, characters are well-drawn, with especially good playing by TV actor Chen Wei 陈威 (who also co-produced) as a gambler who’s superstitious over colours and by Tang Ke 唐可 as his hard-arsed, sexy wife who’s having second thoughts about their operation scamming foreigners. Use of sound is well thought-out, and DV photography by Mao Ming 毛明 makes good use of the claustrophobic setting.
[The Chinese title was later changed to 局中局 for Mainland release.]
Presented by Beijing Limai Group (CN). Produced by Hefu Enterprise Group (CN).
Script: Li Minghang. Photography: Mao Ming. Editing: Li Minghang. Music: Niu Ben. Music design: Li Minghang. Art direction: Ying Zi. Sound: Li Zhe, Niu Ben, Xu Qingtao.
Cast: Chen Wei (Yan), Tang Ke (Cindy), Zheng Yaodong (Liu), Yuan Zifu (Mo), Adam Palin (westerner), Yin Haiyan (Shanshan, the maid), Yao Xingzhu (Liu’s wife), Chen Linfeng, Zhai Jianguo, Li Zichao, Li Minghang (players in flashbacks).
Premiere: Indie Spirit Film Festival, Colorado Springs, US, 16 Apr 2011.
Release: China, 17 Aug 2015.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 20 Jul 2011.)