In many ways, Crazy Rich Asians is a landmark movie of this era. Just a few years ago, it would have been almost inconceivable for a major Hollywood movie filled entirely an Asian cast to be greenlit, let alone become a blockbuster hit. As the biggest grossing romantic movie of this decade, Crazy Rich Asians has put the Asian ethnic communities in the limelight, and along with it, the game of Mahjong as well.
For most Westerners, mahjong is something that they will instantly recognize yet know next to nothing about. It is a regular fixture in scenes involving Asian characters in Hollywood movies and TV shows. You may even call it a trope to have Asians playing mahjong in the background, be it in a club, bar, outside, or even inside low-security ladies prisons.
But Asian movies produced outside the US often have mahjong gambling scenes in them too, but not as trope or stereotype. They are present because the game of Mahjong is extremely popular in Asia, especially in China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia.
IMDB even has a page dedicated to movies where mahjong plays a part. This list includes both Hong Kong and other Asian movies, as well as Hollywood flicks. We will take a look at some of the recent Asian movies and the way they have depicted mahjong gambling. Crazy Rich Asians deserve a special mention here as well since it tops the list.
Majan Horoki 2020 – A Gambler’s Odyssey 2020
This Japanese movie has mahjong both in its title and as a central part of its plot, not to mention the all-important climax of the movie. Majan Horoki tells the story of gambling ace Tetsu, who is transported from 1945 Japan to 75 years in the future.
The movie begins with a high stakes game of mahjong amidst the rubble of war-torn Tokyo, which is interrupted by a freak lightning strike that transports our hero into the future. As he tries to make sense of modern Japan, Tetsu reverts back to what he does best – mahjong gambling.
He even plays mahjong against an intelligent android towards the end of the movie. On his way there, Tetsu experiences many new things, like cybersex and of course, online gambling. Asian gambling games play a huge part in this growing industry, which can be easily seen in the rise of popularity of Asian-themed free spins slots in many online casinos.
Shot entirely on an iPhone camera, this messy yet intriguing adaptation of a novel by Takehiro Irokawa is directed by Kazuya Shiraishi. The movie has already drawn a fair amount of criticism and controversy for its bleak depiction of modern Japan, which includes an alternate version of the present where war and chaos have led to the cancellation of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
Crazy Rich Asians
This Hollywood blockbuster is responsible for a lot of western audiences searching the internet for more information about Mahjong in 2018. The game plays a hugely important role in this Asian-American rom-com set in Singapore.
The scene that puzzled non-Asian audiences arrives towards the end of the movie, in a showdown between the heroine and her strict future mother-in-law, played in majestic fashion by Michelle Yeoh.
The premise is quite simple – Nick is the son of fiercely conservative “Tiger-mom” Eleanor, who is based in Singapore. She does not approve of his girlfriend Rachel (played by Constant Wu), because she is an Asian-American without any strong ties with her native culture.
In a climactic clash, the women meet up for a game of mahjong at a local parlor, in a scene rich with symbolism. For instance, Eleanor is seated on the East position, while Rachel is seated on the West, symbolizing their respective origins.
In the end, Rachel gives up a winning hand, discarding the prized eight of bamboo tile. She does this knowing full well that Eleanor would win the game. Through her sacrifice, she manages to show Eleanor how deep her love for Nick is, and her willingness to give up her own happiness to let him be close to his family.
Crazy Rich Asians is notable for its authentic representation of Mahjong, and a total lack of handholding or exposition about the rules of the game. If you are not familiar with the rules of the game, you will not be able to grasp the significance of the final moves. This is why a lot of people were forced to Google mahjong to understand the climax of the movie!
Saki Achiga-hen Episode of Side A
Saki is a quite popular manga and anime story about a high school girl caught up in the world of competitive mahjong. It mixes Japanese anime themes of high school teenagers, friendships, rivalries, and high-stakes tournaments.
The live-action adaptation closely follows the anime storyline. Saki Miyanaga is a teenager who hates mahjong because her entire family is crazy about it and forces her to play. But when her high school friends discover her natural skill at the game, she is forced to become a part of the school mahjong club.
The manga follows the transformation of Saki and how she comes to love mahjong. Both the anime and the live-action movie has a very dramatic and flamboyant depiction of mahjong games, with lots of flourishes and flashy moves that you would never see in real life!
Mahjong in minor scenes
Plenty of Asian movies have mahjong players and parlors in the background. This is especially true for movies that deal with triads and the Yakuza, like the famous Sonatine, directed by Takeshi Kitano. In this classic from the 1990s, a mahjong parlor owner gets murdered in a turf war between different Yakuza factions.
More recently, movies like Flowers of War (starring Christian Bale) set during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s show scenes of mahjong being played by women. Hong Kong movies from the 2000s, like Election and 2046 (directed by Wong Kar Wai) both have notable mahjong casino scenes.
If you go way back to the 1980s and beyond, martial art movies by the likes of Jackie Chan, Bolo Leung, Sammo Hung, Lau Kar Leung, and Gordon Liu all did feature mahjong scenes. But this handful of modern Asian movies show the timeless game in a more prominent light, as an actual plot device, or even the central theme of the movie in some cases.