Indie filmmaker gambles with 'Mahjong'

Crime story made for only $60,000

SHANGHAI -- On the sidelines of the 13th Shanghai International Film Festival, a darkly comic story of a foreigner caught up in a Chinese love-triangle and a vicious game of mahjong highlights the grit it takes to get an independent film made these days, even in cash-rich China.

Although China's film industry is increasingly described as "booming," Beijinger Donald Li, a Cal State Fullerton graduate, made "Close Encounter of Mahjong," which he wrote, produced and directed for $60,000 raised largely by star A Wei, well-known for his roles in China Central Television dramas.

Shot almost entirely around a gaming table, "Mahjong" -- which co-starts Tang Ke, the only other professional in the cast -- will be finished in July. It grew out of a short film Li made and then passed around at SIFF in 2008.

Li is hopeful he'll manage himself to sell the film to a Western buyer visiting SIFF. Pacing the lobby of the festival hotel, the Crowne Plaza, for takers, Li pitches a film inspired by the small-time crooks of the Coen brothers' films.

"This film won't ever show in China. It's too much about crime and trickery," said Li, the son of a stage director and an opera singer who encouraged him to study business and computer science but failed to talk him out of filmmaking. "But this is the only thing I can do," he said: "make films."

Li said translating the "Mahjong" dialogue for English subtitles took him three months, even despite speaking English competently. He said he got help from Hollywood veterans he met in his seven years in L.A., such as "Friday the 13th" writer Victor Miller and Barry Glasser, executive producer of the 2009 China release "Diamond Dogs," starring Dolph Lundgren and Chinese actress Yu Nan.

"Mahjong, traditional medicine and feng shui are all hard to translate for the common English speaker," Li said.

"Mahjong" was made in association with 22Film Studio, run by Li Zhe, sound director to many independent Chinese films, and with help from Xing Xing, a Beijing-based digital animation company that recently provided special effects to films such as Disney's "High School Musical China," company president Wang Lifeng said.

"They're doing all the little cool shots of close ups on mahjong tiles that cost money to make," said Li, noting that he hopes the film will sell on the story alone. "There's a murder, double-crossing affairs and then a desperate salesman who provides the comedy," he said.

Of Li's debut effort, Hawaii International Film Festival Director Chuck Boller said, "It's tough to make an indie film in China. But I liked this one very much and look forward to seeing the finished feature."