THE MAHJONG BOX – A Review By Nick Askam

THE MAHJONG BOX poster

 

Immediately after I left the showing, I went to the bathroom. I heard at least four guys say “wow” under their breath. That’s the impression that I and many others received from the film. It leaves a great taste in your mouth that you can’t fully understand until several days have passed.  A few days have passed since I’ve watched the film, and I think I can finally put into words what I saw. The film takes you on a slightly unnerving journey of a man who has just recently experienced loss and how he deals with it.

This is the second film from Fabien Gaillard and the second film that he’s shown at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas. He directed and wrote the feature. He introduced the film and did a short Q&A afterwards about the challenges of shooting in China. He announced his next project: an action film. Gaillard talked shortly about how he found the actor for Tom (James Alofs) in a restaurant before he started acting. It was very interesting, and after watching this film, I will try my hardest to see his next. 

The film follows Tom, an American living in Shanghai, as he enters a mysterious apartment. He sees this Mahjong box that was made by his wife’s father. Next, we are introduced to this older woman who turns out to be Ling’s mother (Ge Zhaomei). Slowly, we get details into who Ling (Zhou Tan) was and what she means to Tom. We see their first interactions and the relationship that they had from dealing with awkward introductions to enjoying each other’s company. That utopia is ripped away from us as soon as we get it. We see Ling’s health quickly decline until she falls at her job in the art gallery. Then, we witness the slow demise of Tom until he sees her doppelganger, Bobo (also played by Zhou Tan). 

I think the film does a great job of showing grief without being flashy or over the top. There were definitely elements from the five stages of grief, but they had more nuance. It wasn’t like Tom decided that he needed to turn into a criminal or quit his job because of his unfortunate position. He just lives with a different point of view of the world. He can’t look at certain things the same way. Tom tries so hard to turn back time just to reach the one time when he was happy. He is in denial until he meets Bobo. Tom meets Bobo and immediately knows that she looks very similar to Ling. He spends time at his computer comparing their pictures and decides that this is what he wants to do.

Meeting Bobo is when the film really turns. The tension grows in each interaction because something is inherently wrong with what’s going on. The audience and everyone around Tom knows it. The climax of the film is what makes this film great. Galliard uses the energy that he’s created throughout all of the Bobo interactions to create an explosive payoff. I felt myself gripping my seat in anticipation that everything would go wrong. This whole time I’m torn between rooting for Tom to find happiness again and hoping that Tom will move on. He’s happy because he’s gripping onto everything that reminds him of Ling. My favorite scene is at the end when all of the characters are playing Mahjong and Tom loses it. He reveals everything that he’s feeling and his pent up emotions can’t be contained. It was a wonderful finale that was well worth the buildup.

I really appreciate the little things that this film does. One of my biggest pet peeves is when directors fail to acknowledge their surroundings. What I mean by this is that when there’s a club or a party scene and you can hear the character’s words exactly. There’s no distortion. A film that I think did this right was this film and The Social Network. Both films didn’t alter the music so we could hear the dialogue. We had to fight to understand what the characters were saying or didn’t hear them at all like you would in a club. Another time that I saw this was when Tom takes down the pictures in his bedroom. You feel his pain as he has to tuck each one away before Bobo arrives. I thought it was a great, nuanced way to build tension.

Overall, I was surprised and amazed by the film. I came in knowing nothing about it nor director. I’m so glad that I watched the film. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend it. I thought James Alofs, Zhou Tan, and Ge Zhaomei had great chemistry together and were superbly acted. I get extra credit to Zhou Tan who had to change between roles. I think that she did that fantastically well. All that’s left to say is that I hope that I can see this film again in the near future.

 

Score: 9 out of 10