‘The Mahjong Box’: Film Review

An American in China has a peculiar way of grieving his dead wife in Fabien Gaillard’s ‘The Mahjong Box.’

Is it creepy or therapeutic for a man to marry a near carbon copy of his beloved wife a few months after her death? We never really find out in Paris-born, Shanghai-based filmmaker Fabien Gaillard’s sophomore feature about strangers in strange lands. Like he did in his first film, 2010’s Lao Wai, Gaillard takes a stab at exploring the nuances of international relationships in The Mahjong Box, a more assured if occasionally distancing contemporary drama about reconciling personal loss. In Lao Wai, Gaillard tracked the budding romance between a Frenchman and a Wuhan girl in Shanghai. This time around, he follows an American in the aftermath of a marital tragedy.

Set for a late-February release in China, The Mahjong Box should easily find an art house audience in the Mainland among viewers for its increasingly relevant subject matter, as well as those tired of crass comedies and historical epics. Outside the country, the film could find a place on the festival circuit in Asia-Pacific, while overseas its exposure will be similarly limited to specialized events, with more interest probably coming from Europe.

The Bottom Line

Two ideas that belong in two separate films.

Tom (James Alofs) and Sichuan native Ling (Tan Zhuo) are a happily married couple living in Shanghai, working in those most ubiquitous of post-millennium creative industries: he’s a commercial director and she’s an art gallery curator. Despite her mother (Ge Zhaomei) moving into their apartment, all is well in the family and life is good. When Ling dies suddenly and unexpectedly, Tom first spirals into uncommunicative misery, moping around his hotel room and snapping at his equally crushed mother-in-law. He goes through the motions of anonymous sex and concentrates on work. At a trade show he meets Bobo (also Tan), a bar hostess who’s a ringer for his dead wife and who immediately becomes the object of his oblivious obsession.

Mahjong Box has a clever idea for exploring the different ways we mourn at its core, but it is hampered by a weak leading man (simultaneously stalkery, arrogant and whiny) and an early inability to decided what it wants to be. After Ling’s death, Gaillard initially flirts with an extended exploration of grief and the conflict inherent in the way a European may grieve, versus a local — chiefly Tom’s mother-in-law. There’s an entire film right there.

But then Gaillard changes tack to focus on Tom in his misguided quest to alleviate his pain with a Ling doppelganger. A nugget of uncomfortable tension builds when Tom brings the unwitting Bobo into his life — friends Gao (Song Xincheng) and Liwen’s (Ni Zhang) reactions to her are indeed priceless. Problems arise when these two threads fail to entwine tightly enough to give much emotional heft to either. Peripheral plotlines involving Richard, a vaguely sleazy ad director, and Biaolong, a philosophical street performer, take up time that could have been better spent diving deeper into the psychology of Tom’s bizarre fixation, or on more screen time for Ge, a woman who’s lost her daughter and whose only remaining family is practically a stranger. Her despair, confusion, fear … whatever, would have provided some welcome connective tissue to the larger story.

Of the two streams, Tom’s efforts to recreate his former life with Ling is more compelling, largely thanks to Tan, who is the standout here. She toggles effortlessly from the proper, educated Ling to the more mercenary, streetwise club girl Bobo and makes what could easily be archetypes into more vivid characters. Both women are modern in their unique ways, but in a few short strokes Tan makes who they are clear, particularly in Bobo’s case. Admittedly this is mostly Tom’s story, but the two (three?) women in his life warranted more depth and could also have contributed more nuance to that very story.

To his credit, as he did in his debut, Gaillard never panders or takes aim at easy cross-culture targets. This Shanghai is trendy and Western but still distinctly Chinese, foreign without being fetishized or alien. Tech specs are perfectly fine given what was likely a tight budget. Though the sound in what should be boisterous spaces (a restaurant, a trendy nightclub) is a little flat, Gilles Labarbe’s isolating, neon-accented cinematography makes up for it.

Production company: Mofei Pictures (Beijing) International Culture & Media Co.
James Alofs, Tan Zhuo, Ge Zhaomei, Li Wenjun, Song Xincheng, Ni Zheng, Yang Haiqing, Sun Mengchun, Wang Yue
Director-screenwriter: Fabien Gaillard
Producer: Jinjin
Gong, Mimi Yan
Executive producer: Mimi Yan
Director of photography:
Gilles Labarbe
Production designer: Jerry Zhu
Costume designer: Mimi Yan
Editor: Coralie Van
Music: Dream Koala
Casting: Miao Liang
World sales: MY studio

In Putonghua

93 minutes