(Mandarin, Hokkien, English, Cantonese and French dialogue)
Taipei wannabe shysters and assorted foreign flotsam rub shoulders with one another and the city’s real underworld in Edward Yang’s “Mahjong.” Pic is the eclectic Taiwanese helmer’s most accessible work since the 1986 “The Terrorizer” but is flawed by hit-and-miss scripting and performances. Trading on similar themes as his previous movie-a-clef, “A Confucian Confusion,” but set lower on the social scale, the movie looks set to travel wider but not ring up many enthusiastic reviews. Trimming by 20 minutes would sharpen pic’s best qualities and get rid of its weak spots, most of them centered on the non-Chinese players.
Inspired by a longtime friend of Yang’s, the complex story opens with the news that famed businessman Winston Chen has gone AWOL owing $ 100 million to Taipei’s underworld. Two hoods (Wu Nien-jen, Wang Po-sen) reckon that the best way to find Chen is to follow his son, “Red Fish” (Tang Tsung-sheng), a fast-talking kid who leads a young gang that also includes gigolo hairdresser “Hong Kong” (Chang Chen), shy English-speaker Lun-lun (Ko Yu-lun), and the woozy “Little Buddha” (Wang Chi-tsan), who dresses like a character in an early Spike Lee movie.
Swimming into their orbit are a group of foreigners led by English interior designer Markus (Nick Erickson), his brain-dead Chinese g.f., Alison (Ivy Chen), and Yank “escort agency” veteran Ginger (Diana Dupuis). Everyone hangs out at a trendy Taipei bar, where one night Marthe (Virginie Ledoyen), a Parisienne whom Markus wooed in London, suddenly shows up to continue their relationship.
Over the course of pic’s two hours, Yang builds a tangled storyline in which characters bounce off one another, fall in and out of love, and generally find their fates intertwined.
After dumping Markus, Alison is taken back to the gang’s apartment for some sexual shenanigans. When Markus gives her the cold shoulder, Marthe is taken under the wing of Red Fish and Lun-lun, with the latter gradually falling under her innocent spell. Red Fish constructs an elaborate revenge on Angela (Carrie Ng), a Hong Konger who supposedly swindled his dad a decade ago, and meanwhile tracks down his father in his hideout. Hot on the kids’ heels are the two hoods.
At its best, when the kids are engaging in pseudo-tough repartee, or trying out cons on the foreigners, the movie has an infectious, sparky humor, with the dialogue switching between Mandarin, the earthy Hokkien dialect and English. As Red Fish, Tang dominates these scenes with an immensely self-assured performance and good support from Wang Chi-tsan as the spaced-out, cussing Little Buddha.
Also strong on the Chinese side are prolific H.K. actress Ng (the villain in the cult lesbian crimer “Naked Killer”) as rich sexpot Angela, Wu (a prolific scripter, and director of “A Borrowed Life”) as a greaseball hood, and Ko as the sensitive Lun-lun.
It’s in the foreign perfs and dialogue that the movie hits trouble. Ledoyen is saddled with an ingenuous role that’s simply unbelievable, and Erickson (in a role originally earmarked for David Thewlis) is awkward as a supposed Brit. Dupuis’ part never gets off the starting block, and could easily be eliminated.
Pic’s underlying theme is the same as that of “A Confucian Confusion”– that people in booming ’90s Taiwan are suffering from an identity crisis as the old certainties (Chiang Kai-shek’s paternalistic government, traditional Confucian tenets) have vanished and not been replaced by any deep-rooted values. The only game in town (hence the pic’s title) is making a fast buck.
Yang verbalizes this theme in a speech by Markus near the end, but it’s not really necessary to understand the deeper currents to get something out of the movie. In its best moments, “Mahjong” plays like a screwball comedy made by an arthouse director; at its weakest, it comes over as a pic trying to be much smarter than it actually is. There’s a good 90-minute picture here if the deadwood is eliminated.
Tech credits are fine, with sound mixing done in Sydney.