I screened the film “Crazy rich Asians” this weekend. The film explores some meaningful issues (cultural conflicts, immigrant identity, individual wants versus family loyalty, old money versus new money versus no money,…oh yeah, and how to handle the inevitable vicissitudes of romance) and will justifiably be touted for some powerful performances (see Michelle Yeoh, Constance Wu) and refreshing racial casting (though the scene in which Rachel and Peik Lin confront the armed guards at the gates of the Young mansion made me cringe). Most of the film’s script belies its origins, a genre I sentimentally call “trashy girl novels”. (Not to imply that such books are bad, or that I didn’t use to enjoy them, or that I don’t still enjoy them. I only mean to imply that gems like “Catch this, you gold-digging bitch” gleam with a different lustre than “She a beauty!–I should as soon call her mother a wit.”)
All things considered, on a scale of -1 to 5, I rate the film “Crazy rich Asians” a 2 (i.e. decent). Subject to change without notice.
However, I must extol the mahjong scene, and perforce its ancillary scenes and development along the way, as a nearly perfect 5, equally for its scripting (and improvisation — see references below) and staging and execution. There’s a reason this scene moves you to tears in the midst of an otherwise trite storyline: This scene was constructed with dynamic input and surgical precision, and sincerely delivered with raw emotion. In my life ahead, I will not reflect much on the film as a whole, but this scene will haunt me.
It bears noting that the mahjong scene is an original contribution to the story by the film; it does not appear in the book. According to one reviewer , the scene materialized in part thanks to the actress Ms Yeoh’s insistence that her character be afforded the complexity she deserved, rather than the stock status the book assigned. (Directors, heed your actresses and actors!)
One reviewer  notes that “[t]he scene is written so viewers don’t need to understand the game to understand the story”, a goal the crew and cast achieve brilliantly. Their success at conveying the essential gist using little more than camera focus and length of take is a coup of cinema theory and a credit to Jon M. Chu’s directing. But to understand the game, or at least the silent story that the tiles tell in this scene, enriches the scene and the film with layers of symbolism and depth. After watching the film, I encourage you to peruse the articles below. I have listed the references in order of insight (my opinion), from most to least. My thanks to each of the authors for sharing their insight.
- “The symbolism of ‘Crazy rich Asians”s pivotal mahjong scene, explained“, by Jeff Yang (Vox, 2018-08-17).
- “The story behind ‘Crazy rich Asians”s mahjong showdown“, by Emma Dibdin (Vulture, 2018-08-17).
- “What exactly happens in the ‘Crazy rich Asians’ mahjong scene?“, by Matt Singer (Screen Crush, 2018-08-17).
- “‘Crazy rich Asians’ stars dueled over epic mahjong showndown: ‘No one was giving in’“, by Beatrice Verhoeven (2018-08-16).
- “Crazy rich Asians”s mid-credits scene is brief, but very revealing“, by Aja Romano (Vox, 2018-08-18). This article does not discuss the mahjong scene, but instead speculates on the film’s likely sequel.