Against The Hype

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Photopost: Lust, Caution and Mahjong

March 01, 2010 By: Colin Low Category: Movies, Picture Posts

I kickstarted this blog on the fifteenth day of the last Chinese New Year with a review of the delightful Oriental-themed Kung Fu Panda. Today, on this blog’s first lunisolar anniversary, I have mahjong on the brain, having played many bouts of it in the earlier days of this festive season. To mark the occasion, let’s take a closer look at one of Lust, Caution‘s most crucial scenes, an exemplar of how the movie uses mahjong to encode meanings both among its characters and to the audience. Here, we are treated to the mutual seduction of the two leads, Mrs Mai (Tang Wei) and Mr Yi (Tony Leung), as well as Mrs Yi’s canny reactions to the same.

Prior to the game at hand, Mrs Mai was caught in the rain as she entered the Yi residence, and found herself sheltered under Mr Yi’s umbrella, and offered his handkerchief. It is in the ensuing scene that he plays his first and only game of mahjong in the movie. At a telling juncture of this game, Mrs Yi claims her husband’s discarded tile with a 碰 pèng (to form a set of three identical tiles), just as Mrs Mai is about to claim it with a 吃 chī (to form a set of three consecutive tiles):

As there are only four of each tile, the 碰 pèng takes precedence, allowing Mrs Yi to thwart Mrs Mai’s ascent to victory. Now that Mrs Yi has claimed three of the one tile that Mrs Mai needs, it is highly unlikely that Mrs Mai will be able to complete that set. This is especially since one can only claim discarded tiles using 吃 chī from the player on one’s left, and Mr Yi has already been alerted that she needs the 七筒 qītǒng tile, thus being able to withhold from discarding that tile if he has it in his hand. Stepping away from the narrative, we might say that Mrs Yi is claiming possession over her husband, in the face of the potential seductress.

So what does Mr Yi do? He discards the same tile again.

Even Mrs Mai is a little stunned by this (or pretends to be) before she claims his discarded tile. With his implied complicity, she now boldly feigns for Mrs Yi to call her when Mr Yi is free to visit her tailor, taking out her notebook and pen. Mrs Yi replies, “Mrs Mai, I already have your phone number.”

It’s a call of Mrs Mai’s bluff, but Joan Chen cleverly subdues Mrs Yi’s voice, and then drops her eyes as she discards her tile. In other words, Mrs Mai hasn’t fooled Mrs Yi, but the latter makes no fuss.  Triumphant, Mrs Mai now claims Mrs Yi’s discarded tile with a 碰 pèng, and sallies on with her plan, hastily scribbling the rest of her “un-needed” phone number before claiming Mrs Yi’s tile:

We have now entered the last round of this game. Mr Yi makes his move, then bends to his right to reach for a snack. Mrs Mai’s phone number is conspicuously in view, and as he looks at it—

“Ah, does this mean I’ve won?” asks Mrs Mai. He looks up to find that she has.

The fourth player, Mrs Xiao, topples Mr Yi’s tiles to check that he has been legitimately discarding tiles to form a good hand, not simply feeding Mrs Mai her winning tiles, and finds that she is unable to accuse him of any foul play (Mr Yi is smarter than that):

Mrs Yi, to Mrs Mai: “You seem to have a fair bit of luck today.” As she says this, she throws a knowing glance at her husband. Not only does this line of hers accuse Mr Yi of having a hand in Mrs Mai’s “luck”, it also non-diegetically refers to Mrs Mai’s larger game of ensnaring Mr Yi. To that accusation, Mr Yi smiles back, his mouth full of snack.

In the next scene, Mrs Mai will receive a call…

I don’t know how many of Lust, Caution‘s western critics were familiar with the nuances of mahjong when they saw the film, or if they even managed to get those nuances without any prior knowledge of the game. How do you feel about this scene?

7 Comments to “Photopost: Lust, Caution and Mahjong”

  1. I’m not familiar with the game of mahjong (it does seem fun!) so thanks for doing a step-by-step analysis of how this hand pans out. I got that he somehow let her win, which was cute, and I guess it’s part of their lusty foreplay scenes (the foreplay before the actual foreplay anyway).


    • Colin Low says:

      Another bit of trivia I didn’t include in the post: At every turn of the game until her last, Mrs Mai is claiming discards from Mr Yi using 吃 chī (eat), or Mrs Yi using 碰 pèng (strike). Only her final offscreen winning move is a 自摸 zìmō (self-drawn): she’s made her own fortune in this game.

      Glad you enjoyed!

  2. Triumphant, Mrs Mai claims Mrs Yi’s discarded tile with a 碰 pèng, and sallies on with her plan, hastily scribbling the rest of her “un-needed” phone number before claiming Mrs Yi’s tile:

    Shouldn’t it be Mr Yi instead of Mrs Yi?

    That said, v interesting! Didn’t realise that haha. should watch it again. I just thought it an interesting little piece of subterfuge..

    • Colin Low says:

      Nope, it’s Mrs Yi. Mrs Mai has already claimed Mr Yi’s discard with 吃 chī, and the turn has moved on to Mrs Yi, who quietly “submits” to what’s going on under her nose: hence Mrs Mai claims her discard with 碰 pèng, leaving herself just one more move to win the game.

  3. I love mah jong. Thank you for sharing this!

  4. The most powerful foreplay scene ever. Thank you so much for the explanation :)

  5. I always wondered about Lust Caution. Im not familiar with Mah Jong but I sort of understood the subtext by the body language and gestures. This analysis just brought it home


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