Saturday, March 12, 2011

[In His Time: The Films of Edward Yang] Mahjong (麻将 / Ma Jiang)

No Problem

The Edward Yang retrospective continues into its final weekend, culminating with his famous works Yi Yi and A Brighter Summer Day tomorrow with a world oremiere of James Leong's documentary on the master filmmaker on the set of his last completed film, and a look at the animation that's The Wind which was what Edward Yang was working on before he passed away. Quite the impressive lineup, and not to forget the attendance of his wife to introduce The Wind/Yi Yi.

But before we go to his more famous works, Mahjong is one of his overlooked gems, and the first in which he has Westerners in key roles, examining the city of Taipei and its inhabitants, their issues and concerns through their eyes as well, in addition to more of those who are downtrodden, and looking to play catch up to get their hands on a slice of the city's economic wealth through whatever means possible whether unorthodox or immoral, as long as it made financial sense.

Essentially the story follows the rag tag adventures of a quartet forming a loose gang of sorts, each relying on their individual skills brought to the table for everyone to enjoy the fruits of what their combined abilities can bring. Unofficial leader of the gang is Red Fish (Tang Tsung-Sheng), the brains who designs the various scams from fortune telling to gigolo pimping (of his friend no less), and one who is quite central to many of the subplots in the film, especially since he has father issues, with the rags to riches to rags father wrecking havoc on his family's life, yet being imparted some life skills from the businessman dad that you can say is in the genes to succesd in life, only for the son to exploit these skills on illegal businesses.

Key to the group's scam is Little Buddha (Wang Qizan), a bald punk who's the foulest mouth of them all, posing as a fortune teller whose interest lies only in the boosting of his and his friends' coffers, and who is probably the most superstitious of the lot, adamant that kissing on the lips bring about bad luck, something that influenced Hong Kong (Chang Chen), the gigolo of the group who uses his charms to seduce rich or beautiful women, and string them around his finger. Rounding up the quartet is the newcomer Luen Luen (Ko Yu-Lun), the designated driver of the group as well as the one with the most heart, struggling to reconcile with the immorality that surrounds him, though it may be suggested his lack of smarts and skills as compared to the rest, meant taking orders and being unable to break out of his economic rut.

There are three major scams in the film that unravel with varying degrees of success, one involving that of the telling of misfortune to befall their victim's car, whiich of course is engineered without their victim's knowing. Then there's the befriending of Virginie Ledoyen's Marthe only for the motive of trying to gain her trust enough to ultimately pimp her out, and then the largest running scam of them all which involves revenge on a father who had returned after a long period of disappearance, and that of a lady who had once cheated the Red Fish's dad, in order to teach both a lesson. Running alongside this are two bumbling gangsters tasked to kidnap Red Fish, ordered by an unseen creditor of Red Fish's father.

There are so many interesting arallels that can be drawn from this film, made in the mid 90s, with the Singapore that is today, especially in its opening commentary with a number of characters in full discussion stating their disdain about the foreigners in their midst, knowing that they flock to the country to enjoy the fruits that are to come, wooing their women, adopting the holier than thou White Man Supremacy attitude, establishing contacts for business, and as a matter of fact some being the rejects from their own home country that had made them uproot and go over to a new land where they cannot speak the language, since there is absolutely nothiing left to lose.

These are similar grouses you hear from time to time from various grapevines online or otherwise, so in fact these are social problems, perceived or otherwise, that aren't really new to other parts of the world already. Then how about the mantra preached by Red Fish, and probably most of the businessmen portrayed in the film, as being in positions to influence others, understanding the human psyche of not knowing what we want, and waiting for others to tell us so, and lead us. Can someone say Nanny State to this?

And while some are here for honest businesses, there are those who are here to set up vice activities, as seen in one trying to befriend Marthe and offering her a job in what would be the world's oldest profession since her idealism for romance had brought her an unexpected surprise, and a revenue generating activity is priority to allow her to continue living in the growingly expensive city, if not for her friendship with the quartet, especially Luen Luen, which presents in itself the romantic subplot that Edward Yang, for now based on what I've seen, seemed to be unable to steer clear of, especially with the opportunity to present a cross cultural romance.

For so much that is going on, this film is the least convoluted, and showcases the brilliance of Edward Yang's knack for great dialogue for banter by his characters, switching effortlessly between Mandarin and Hokkien, and now with English as well, and of course the nice comical touches that come every other minute though not as much as A Confucian Confusion, but close. There are plenty of long takes that will always poses a challenge for scenes that boast complex lines, which of course bring out some of the best from his actors, and it shows.

The final act of the film is extremely intense as things do not really go as planned for one of the arcs, which come complete with a powerful revelation that hammers home the fact of how easily we can mislead ourselves when we rely on gut or the heart to live our lives, more heartwrenching when you realize the mantra that the central character preaches consistently. If you have the opportunity to chance upon Edward Yang's Mahjong, don't let it slip by!


YTSL said...

Hi Stefan --

For a long time, "Mahjong" was THE Edward Yang movie I wanted to view -- because it has the often way-too-under-rated Carrie Ng in it. And while hers is but a supporting role in the film, I definitely enjoyed the work when I finally got to check it out. And having Chang Chen in it as that gigolo reduced to tears by a bunch of hungry older women was icing on the cake! :D

Stefan S said...


Haha, yes Carrie Ng's in it, with big hair :D I suppose Chang Chen broken down is every woman's fantasy eh? :P

btw what a letdown in the FA cup... I guess only 1 trophy left to gun for, and even then I'm not confident if we display the same lacklustre attitude yesterday :(

YTSL said...

Hi again Stefan --

Don't know about a broken down Chang Chen being every woman's fantasy but I sure did find the development in the film very funny. :D

Re Arsenal: alas, I started fearing that our season was going to go downhill after we lost the Carling Cup Final and, alas, thus far events are proving me right! :(

Stefan S said...

Hi again YTSL!

After watching the rest of the films (still haven't posted them up), I think Mahjong is amongst the tops of the lot. Will be transcribing Mrs Edward Yang's dialogue session soon, hope to get it done soonest possible

As for the gunners, what can I say, we need more players with Wilshere's never say die attitude :(

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