The Mahjong Box

An American widower in Shanghai tries to reclaim his lost love by winning over a nightclub hostess in The Mahjong Box. Writer-director Fabien Gaillard discusses opportunities for filmmakers in China, exploring the connections between East and West, and the making of his sophomore feature.

EastIndie: You’ve been in China for more than a decade now. Was it always your intention to still be here in 2016 and what has that journey been like?

Fabien Gaillard: I had an opportunity back in 2005 to work on a film festival organized by the French Embassy in Beijing. After that, I decided to move to Shanghai where I started shooting documentaries until I got the chance to make my first feature, Lao Wai [in 2010]. After a decade here, I’m still fascinated by cross-cultural themes and that’s why I’ve also made this second film [The Mahjong Box] about a foreigner living in China.

EI: For many expat filmmakers in China, getting even one short film independently produced is already a sizeable accomplishment. The Mahjong Box is the second feature film you’ve directed here. Do you see yourself as an outlier in this respect or do you think there are more opportunities out there for foreigners to make films in China?

FG: Recently, there have been more opportunities for filmmakers in general because of the booming internet movie industry in China and because feature films can now be made for less than a million RMB. But, they do have to fit the expectations of Chinese audiences—which is not an easy thing to do when you are an expat filmmaker. I don’t pretend to know more about Chinese culture than any other filmmaker and that’s why I prefer talking about something that I am familiar with—in particular, the point of view of a foreigner living in China.

EI: Like your first feature, The Mahjong Box also centers on a story about Chinese-Western inter-cultural relationships. What is it that has continued to interest you in telling stories about these kinds of relationships?

FG: In a time of globalization, I believe there will be more-and-more love stories between Chinese and Western people—which was still quite rare not even that long ago. So, I’m really interested in talking about these new relationships between East and West and not only about love, but also when it comes to other related topics as well.

The Mahjong Box (2016)

EI: While the film’s English title references the game of mahjong the characters play throughout the story, the Chinese title—San Que Yi—translates into something a bit different (though related). For those who aren’t familiar with the expression, what is its meaning and how does it tie in with the film?

FG: The expression is related to the game of mahjong itself. When a group of players don’t have enough people to play they use the expression to find another player. In the film it has a double meaning—Tom’s wife is missing, so it can also be interpreted as “I miss you”.

EI: Where does the commitment and support for a project like this come from and how do you go about generating enough interest in a project like this to get it off the ground?

FG: Gathering people to work on this project was easier than with my first film because some people knew my previous work and were already interested in joining the crew. I was also lucky enough to find a production company—Mofei Pictures in Beijing—which supported the project.

"I don’t pretend to know more about Chinese culture than any other filmmaker and that’s why I prefer talking about something that I am familiar with—in particular, the point of view of a foreigner living in China."

EI: Where and when did production take place?

FG: The film was shot entirely in Shanghai in 2014 and was followed by post-production which took over a year to complete. The editing was the longest part and took about six months. I worked with Coralie Van Rietschoten—who also edited a number of my previous films—since we both know how important it is to take time during the process to ask ourselves the right questions so we could get the best results. For the sound design, I worked with Li Dan-Feng, who has also worked with various directors like Jia Zhang Ke and Diao Yi’nan.

EI: With only a few exceptions, the dialogue in the film is delivered almost entirely in Mandarin. As a non-Chinese filmmaker, what level of complexity does that add to the whole process of writing and directing a film in a second (or third) language?

FG: Writing the script wasn’t difficult only because I wrote it in French and then had it translated into Mandarin. I’m not fluent in Chinese, but my Chinese is good enough to have daily conversations with the actors. Of course, when something got more difficult to explain I had an assistant to help me.

The Mahjong Box (2016)

EI: Both of your feature films have brought together mixed casts of Chinese and foreign actors. In your experience, are there any fundamental differences in the way in which Chinese and foreign actors approach their job and does this affect how you work as a director?

FG: In France, we have the tradition of doing rehearsals with the actors before shooting. In China, people don’t always do rehearsals. Instead, actors often work independently and then propose something on set. On this film, I was lucky to work with a group of experienced actors who proposed some wonderful variations of acting.

EI: Was there a particular scene or moment in the film that was the most gratifying or rewarding to see once it finally came together in the end?

FG: The final mahjong scene is personally the most exciting part for me. It brings out the tension and the suspense that I imagined when I was writing the script. Of course, much of this is thanks to my wonderful actors—James Alofs, Tan Zhuo and Ge Zhaomei—who totally understood the importance and the issues of the scene.

"On this film, I was lucky to work with a group of experienced actors who proposed some wonderful variations of acting."

EI: The film recently premiered in the US at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas. How was that experience and what was the audience response to the film like?

FG: The audience reaction in the US was really good. People were really surprised by the performances of the actors, especially Tan Zhuo—who plays two different characters—and James Alofs—who was able to switch from being a regular guy to being a crazy one.

EI: Have you had the opportunity do any private screenings for a Chinese audience and, if so, how has their response compare with that of the foreign audience?

FG: We did a private screening in Beijing and the reaction was really enthusiastic. Some people were surprised about the extent to which a film made by a foreigner could reveal so much about Chinese culture. That was the best compliment I could have got.

The Mahjong Box (2016)

EI: Now that the film has made its debut overseas, what plans do you have to distribute or screen it here in China?

FG: We are currently in discussions with a distribution company. Hopefully the theatrical release in China will take place this winter.

EI: What do you hope audiences take away from seeing the film?

FG: I’d like to give Chinese audiences a different impression of foreigners living in China by avoiding the usual clichés. Hopefully, it can help everyone to get to understand each other better.

EI: Finally, what do you have planned for your next project?

FG: I’m currently working on a script for an action movie that will also be shot in China for Chinese audiences.