“Karmic Mahjong,” Wang Guangli’s goofy departure from his more serious work, marks an uneven bid for mainstream acceptance. With a story centering on a klutzy underdog contending with mobsters, a conniving fortune-teller, and a heartless wife, and a tone that’s very much in Hong Kong comedy mode, pic may be unrecognizable to — and may turn off — fans of Wang’s 2001 “Go for Broke.” Hoped-for appeal to larger crowds seems viable though, especially in key local Mainland venues, while fests will vie for a respectable Chinese title that aims for laughs.
Set in Wang’s home province of Sichuan, pic spins on theme of mahjong — of the “karmic” variety — as a way of life, based on its intense popularity in the region. But key concern here is how auto detailer Wu Yu-chuan (Francis Ng) will triumph over his antagonists (or “villains,” as translated in subtitles).
Relentlessly henpecked by his wife Lai (Liang Jing), who escapes her mordant marital existence by playing mahjong — Wu seeks help from blind fortuneteller Master Liu (Liu Yiwai).
Liu is obviously an operator of the first order, and Wang — and actor Liu — have lots of fun poking needles into the shyster side of the “mystical.” Poor Wu, though, takes Liu’s advice to defeat his villains seriously, and gets himself into more trouble in the process.
Much of this stems from Wu succumbing to the temptation for big cash offered by old boyhood pal and current mobster Yin (Na Wai). Yin’s boss, the nefarious Qin (Paul Chun), runs a car smuggling ring and will pay handsomely for old cars repainted to look like new. Unfortunately, Wu accidentally detonates his first car in one of many scenes that nearly beg auds to dismiss Wu as a complete boob.
“Karmic” gets bogged down in several sequences of this ilk, and its satirical edge is blunted in the process. A subplot involving Qin and an aggrieved mother (Cherrie Ying) is also one plot too many.
But, in his use of exaggerated wide-angle shooting and slapstick-style antics, Wang is clearly tipping a hat to Hong Kong action comedy. He even amusingly ties this in with nods to his fellow directing contemporaries, casting renowned helmers Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai in cameos as, respectively, a crook and a cop.
The over-the-tops jollies here are strictly a matter of taste, though Ng’s sweet perf humanizes a seemingly witless Everyman. Liu is brilliantly foxy, playing things straight but with an occasional wink to the aud.
Production values lean toward the slick, topped by Lu Yuqing’s energetic lensing that seems to take in all of the city of Chendu. Pic is part of a new trend in Chinese-based productions that are independently financed with some non-Mainland money, but are also not part of the independent underground.