The Mahjong Box is the second feature from Shanghai-based French filmmaker Fabien Gaillard whose laidback, observational debut Lao Wai (2010) impressed with its naturalistic take on contemporary cross-cultural romance in the Paris of the East. Revisiting this theme within a psychological framework, Gaillard has crafted another love story that bypasses the obvious East/West interplay to explore universal emotions against the backdrop of a cosmopolitan cityscape.
While the ex-pat in Lao Wai made a living as a freelance computer technician in order to pursue musical ambitions through club performances, his equivalent here, photographer Tom (James Alofs), is comparatively middle-class. Happily married to art gallery manager Ling (Tan Zhuo), they own a house in an upscale suburb: as illustrated by the tastefully minimalist design of the apartment and Ling’s boutique gallery, this is cultivated lifestyle that carefully balances the modern with the traditional. Tom even comes to appreciate the presence of Ling’s mother (Ge Zhaomei) who relocates from Sichuan to live with them. Domestic bliss is shattered when Lin suffers a stroke at work and dies, sending Tom into a tailspin; after some time away, he returns to Shanghai and resumes his career, but has still not come to terms with bereavement. While photographing a cosplay event, he spots Bobo (also played by Tan), a no-nonsense model with an uncanny resemblance to Ling who is also from Sichuan. A besotted Tom tries to woo Bobo, but she supplements her income by working as a club hostess and initially sees him as a potential client.
In aesthetic terms, this is a different film to Lao Wai, which used a naturalistic approach to capture the rhythm of Shanghai from the perspective of an assimilated foreigner. Still, the films are very much companion pieces with The Mahjong Box playing like a heavier B-side to Lao Wai’s wistfully optimistic pop song as it examines a relationship that ends as suddenly as the courtship in its predecessor picks up steam. Told partially in flashback with a contemplative rock score by French composer Dream Koala, it could have become a Doppelganger mystery in the style of Lou Ye’s romantic noir Suzhou River (2000), which was a Shanghai-set riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo (1954). Gaillard is more invested in sustaining mood than playing mind games, though, with the aftershock of grief rippling through the cool surface of Gilles Labarbe’s polished cinematography.
Gaillard does, however, keep the audience guessing as to the extent of Tom’s delusion as the widower attempts to recreate his relationship with Ling through Bobo. Performing capably in Mandarin, Canadian actor Alofs is nicely cast as a cultivated world citizen trying to fill an unbearable void (Tom’s nationality is never mentioned and his family is only briefly discussed). Excelling in her dual role, Tan creates two distinct characters who come from the same regional background but exhibit markedly different attitudes as a result of their respective Shanghai experiences, later conflating these opposing identities when Tom invites Bobo to get acquainted with Ling’s mother over dinner and a fateful game of mahjong. Despite being seen through Tom’s desperately manipulative gaze, the outwardly cynical Bobo proves to be just as complex having built-up defensive layers out of necessity while working in the hospitality industry.
Without succumbing to exoticism, Gaillard continues to find moments of magic in Shanghai, such as Tom taking a post-assignment taxi ride through the neon-soaked streets in the early hours of the morning, his therapeutic encounter with a street performer (Yang Haiqing), and the moment he notices Bobo amidst a gaudy sea of pop culture commercialism. The city’s club scene is shown to be pulsating yet soulless, giving rise to merely superficial encounters in comparison to the genuine connections being made elsewhere.
The Mahjong Box is a stylistically refined tale of love and loss in the global metropolis that confidently builds to a moving catharsis.