Fat Choi Spirit

Reviewed by YTSL

Early on in this Milkyway Image production, the assertion is made by Bonnie Wong’s patently not entirely lucid thinking character that: “Everyone knows how to play mahjong”.  When viewing this mahjong game oriented Chinese New Year comedy whose stellar cast includes Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Gigi Leung Wing-Kei (who looked to have had a ball playing one of the eccentric individual filled work’s more oddball personalities -- a woman with not only a major temper but also a pretty intense desire to become the wife of the movie’s main man), Lau Ching Wan, Louis Koo Tin-Lok and Cherrie Ying Choi-Yi (all of whom either play characters who have the same name as those who play them or ones which do not get mentioned over the course of the entire movie!), it sure can seem this way.

As many Western Hong Kong filmophiles can undoubtedly attest though, this actually is not the case in real life (or, especially, in territories that are not like Hong Kong in having a predominantly ethnic Chinese population). Over the course of leafing through the many reviews of FAT CHOI SPIRIT on the HKMDB, however, I found -- with some surprise -- that a lack of knowledge re what it means when mahjong players yell out such as “pong” (i.e., to denote that they have a “hand” that contains a three of a kind set of tiles), “kong” (i.e., to announce their having come by all four of a same designed tile) and “self touch” (i.e., to point out that they have won a game by independently drawing a winning tile rather than by way of accepting one thrown out by another player) have not prevented a number of folks from having enjoyed their viewing of this Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai co-produced cum -directed movie.
For the most part, I was glad to learn that this was so for them since I do reckon (too) that FAT CHOI SPIRIT -- as surely can be discerned by way of its most villainous character being a self styled “Master of Mahjong” who turns out to be a con artist, dresses like a rapper, acts like a big baby, has a father portrayed by Wong Tin Lam, and is happily overplayed by Lau Ching Wan -- is one very fun filled effort.  Nonetheless, this (re)viewer -- who (no, I really am not trying to rub it in!) was taught how to play mahjong by her mother when she was about four years old... -- feels obliged to state that a significant portion of the considerable pleasure that she personally derived from viewing this breezy movie stemmed from her being able to “read” the mahjong tiles and hands that are frequently on prominent display in this light hearted offering.
For one thing, this “reading” facility was what allowed me to appreciate and consequently marvel at the sight of “hands” that held rare as well as special configurations like “13 Unique Wonders” and “Heaven’s Grace”.  For another, it was needed to fully recognize how terrible were some of the “hands” that FAT CHOI SPIRIT’s Mahjong Warrior protagonist -- drew during his cursedly unlucky period.  Additionally, for all of this rather loosely structured effort’s apparently containing plenty of visual, verbal and musical cues that give non-mahjong playing viewers some idea re what’s going on in a game (and the festive film as a whole), they cannot help but miss out on really understanding why one way to lose as well as win is different -- and either more costly or profitable -- from another.
When coupled with the abundance in this Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-Hoi and Au Kin-Yee scripted work of such “in-jokes” as Andy Lau’s constantly swigging a brand of tea that he is the celebrity spokesman for in Hong Kong along with the sudden throwing out of a spoofy “Once Upon a Time in China” visual and verbal reference at one point in the offering, FAT CHOI SPIRIT can appear to be one of those films that seems to have gone out of its way to penalize those of its viewers who are not familiar with Hong Kong society and cinema as well as Chinese culture.  Alternatively, there might be some truth to the suggestion that even those who do not realize that the “mop head” that Gigi Leung temporarily sported -- while appearing as a tax bureau official -- looks to have been deliberately similar to that which adorns the head of Regina Ip (the HKSAR’s not particularly popular Secretary of Security) are liable to realize that it’s not a hairstyle that the actress would normally have plus becomes her, and consequently derive some amusement from that very fact alone.
Hence it being quite possible that the catching of these types of references merely constitutes icing on an already delicious cake.  Relatedly, it seems much more important for it to clearly come across that one of FAT CHOI SPIRIT’s primary messages is that “we are all winners”.  Ditto re it being so that “good character makes [for a] good player” and vice versa.  To this latter end, it was necessary for one of the genial work’s main characters to learn how to refrain from losing her temper even when a mahjong game doesn’t go her way in order to get what she really wants in life.  In the process, the suggestion also gets tendered that, even while “mahjong is just a game”, this favorite past-time of many is not necessarily -- like the entertaining movie’s one (of course not unreformable) mahjong hater had alleged -- a complete waste of time.

This mahjong playing reviewer’s rating for the film: 8.