King of Mahjong movie full length review - Chapman To does the best acting he has in recent years, and this family drama-first, gambling comedy-second CNY offering is amusing, exciting and surprisingly heartwarming
Wong Jing was and perhaps still remains the undisputed king of the gambling-themed comedy, but that hasn't deterred Malaysian director Adrian The from taking him head-on.
Yes, going straight up against Wong Jing's 'From Vegas to Macau' sequel this Lunar New Year is The's 'King of Mahjong', which recruits as its lead star Hong Kong actor Chapman To, whom one may remember as the supporting comic relief next to the straight and dull Nicholas Tse in last year's 'Vegas'. Thankfully, The doesn't try to 'copy' Wong Jing's 'mo lei tau' frenetic style of humour; rather, at a surprisingly long 112 minutes, his 'King of Mahjong' aims for the same poignancy and warmth that made his earlier 'The Wedding Diary' such an unexpected success.
As the synopsis goes, To and our very own Mark Lee are pitted as bitter rivals from the same Master (played by Eric Tsang); and while To has lived a life of seclusion for the past 20 years selling 'yong tau foo' in an Ipoh coffeeshop, Lee's Wong Tin Ba has travelled the world challenging rivals from Japan (Henry Thia in a not-quite-so- funny cameo) and China (Hayley and Jayley Woo in a slightly less hammy segment) until he is left with but one opponent, To's Ah Fatt. It isn't a terribly original story we'd give you that, and perhaps that is why its trio of writers ? Lai Chiang Ming, Ang Siew Hoong and Ho You Wang ? opt for a surprisingly character-driven narrative.
Indeed, short for a brief five minutes where he appears to challenge To at his coffeeshop, Lee is pretty much absent for the first hour of the film. The focus here is really on Ah Fatt, a single father who has been raising a precocious teenage daughter Sassy Bai (Venus Wong) on his own after his wife Ramona (Michelle Ye) left them when Sassy was only two years old. Fatt is worried that the headstrong Sassy will never find a suitor, and tries to get her to realise that she is in fact in love with a nerdy-looking neighbour Wayne (Adrian Tan) ? who is also equally (but much more obviously) smitten with her. A lively supporting cast played by Richard Low, Patricia Mok and Dennis Chew round up the mahjong-happy ?? ('gai fong') to lend the scenes a nice 'kampung spirit' feel.
Tin Ba's surprise appearance one day not only forces Ah Fatt to tell his daughter about the life he left behind 20 years ago, but also gives him and Sassy a chance to reconcile with Ramona when she returns shortly after with apparently no recollection of the past. Enthusiasts of the game will probably sit up every 15 minutes or so when The unspools an extended mahjong-playing sequence, but the rest of us will have to settle for some nice heartwarming family drama, which to be honest, isn't an entirely bad thing at all. If anything, it gives To the chance to show off his acting chops without his typical goofy façade, and he rewards that opportunity with a nuanced performance that nicely balances the comedic and dramatic elements of the plot without turning it into farce or melodrama.
In contrast, Lee gets the (much) shorter end of the stick, playing a villainous self-absorbed character who is so hammy he makes you cringe whenever he comes on screen. Tin Ba's pursuit of his own vainglory has led him to ignore the people who should matter in his life, including his disciple whom he treats as his secretary (Lenna Lim) and a daughter (Cheronna Ng @Super Girls) whom another character rightly points out has probably gotten too much of sun for her own good. Ah Fatt and Tin Ba are clearly meant to be cast as polar opposites, but The goes overboard Tin Ba's narcissism, so much so that he ends up a caricature next to Ah Fatt. There are also too few scenes of To and Lee together ? besides that one occasion Tin Ba popped up to issue the challenge, the only other time the two actors appear together before the finale is in a flashback during their younger selves with their Master ? so anyone hoping for a sparring between the two motor-mouthed comedians will probably come off disappointed.
That said, the finale is a guaranteed crowdpleaser. To gets to do his best 'God of Gamblers' ? and we must say that he looks pretty cool. The qualifying rounds are surprisingly exciting, emphasising the battle of wits between the players. The eventual reconciliation between husband and wife/ mother and daughter is to be expected, but To handles the schmaltz with restraint and grace, such that it turns out unexpectedly moving. And that much-anticipated showdown between Ah Fatt and Tin Ba ends in a nice twist that underscores the feel- good message that The remains committed to right from the very beginning of the movie, which also serves as a timely reminder especially during this time of year when the sound of mahjong tiles can be heard in every other home.
We didn't expect that Lee would be the movie's weakest link, but that aside, 'King of Mahjong' is a surprisingly entertaining CNY comedy with gentle humour, some nail-biting gambling sequences and a nice heartwarming feel. To's earnest heartfelt performance is one of his best and the film's biggest strength, while a star-studded ensemble of Lo Hoi Pang, Susan Shaw, Kingdom Yuen and Mimi Chu lend a nice dash provide some delightful fun enacting the birth of the game during Confucian times and its modern-day relevance among older folk. It isn't Wong Jing laugh-out-loud, but that is exactly why The's 'King of Mahjong' is even better ? not only are the laughs more natural, it also rings home a message about family, which is ultimately what CNY should be about.