Poker? Judge William Lee hardly knows her.
Play, strip—or die!
There is a gleefully misogynistic quality to the Japanese exploitation film Strip Mahjong: Battle Royale that makes it hard to dismiss it outright. The movie's reason for existing is plainly obvious. The thin plot manufactures reasons for young women to appear in various states of undress for the camera. What sets this movie apart from countless other interchangeable skin flicks though is its odd mixture of winking-at-the-audience humor and suspenseful atmosphere. The movie knows it's a T&A spectacle but its makers are determined to deliver a sincere thriller even if the caliber of the acting and production can't quite live up to the promise.
Facts of the Case
Four women are forced to play mahjong in a secret dungeon to pay off their gambling debts. The game is being broadcast live to a select audience, we're told by the highly energetic and ever-smiling host, McKato (Hiroaki Kawatsure, Grotesque). At the end of each round, the losers must settle their wagers by stripping off their clothes. Once they're naked, McKato or his dementedly cheery co-host Ranran, dressed in a maid's costume, will inflict further punishment. If a player has nothing left to lose, she is dealt a lethal penalty. The last woman standing wins $10 million.
Strip Mahjong: Battle Royale combines a number of different movie styles in an ungraceful manner. That's not to say these various styles arenâ€™t handled well but their blending in the same movie is jarring at times. The "wife to be sacrificed" trope of Japanese cinema is definitely in play as the four contestants are in turn subjected to ritualized humiliation. Some scenes will bring to mind "women in prison" conventions as well. The Asian gambling movie is another dominant influence as the mahjong game is afforded enough seriousness and attention to strategy to truly generate some suspense. The mahjong action is rather quick so there isn't time to figure out how to play based on these scenes alone. The uninitiated will follow along just fine thinking of mahjong as rummy with tiles. There is some element of pop culture satire going on as well. The game is being broadcast to an audience (though we never see the audience or the cameras) and McKato's manic on-air persona resembles any Japanese game show host we've seen in imported television. I enjoyed a running gag where another character asks if the host really means to call himself M.C. Kato.
The characterization of the women demonstrates the narrow focus of the script. Each of the players is merely a stereotype of Japanese females in movies. Aoi is lawyer so she has a cold, professional demeanor. Misuzu is a mousy housewife who acts all fidgety and anxious for most of her screen time. Yuka, a would-be pop idol, is always looking to establish an alliance with a stronger woman. Finally, Mirai is described as a freeter (it's a Japanese term for underemployed youth) and she fills the role of the film's protagonist. Her cautious level-headedness and good nature make her a little dull compared to the others. Some uneven acting further reminds us that these aren't meant to be fully realized and realistic characters. When one character is killed off, the moment is so unconvincing I thought the scene might be a setup for a later surprise twist. Their plight resembles a sociological experiment observing the results of placing these types into the same stressful situation.
The movie deserves credit for putting as much effort into the story as it does to the scenes concentrating on female nudity. Typically, skin flicks just pad out the running time with the narrative bits. Strip Mahjong: Battle Royale is the rare T&A gem that can be watched straight through without leaning on the fast forward button. The story ultimately doesn't amount to much but it generates some good suspenseful moments. The scenes of nudity occur at the right intervals to satisfy the reason we're watching this in the first place and they're not so lengthy that they become tedious.
The DVD comes from TLA Releasing under their Danger After Dark label and there's nothing wrong with the transfer aside from how it reveals the low-budget nature of the production. The entire movie looks like it was shot in two basement sets so there isn't much variety in its look. The picture has a subtle yellow color cast that makes the image kind of ugly but it gives some style to the limited lighting. During scenes of the mahjong game, the table and the white tiles are blindingly lit while the actors sit mostly in shadow. Flesh tones are generally pale. Creative lighting choices aside, the picture quality is acceptable. Details are rendered reasonably sharp and the shadows are deep.
The two-channel soundtrack sounds fine on this disc. I didn't get the impression that the movie required a complex audio mix so hearing the actors' voices clearly was what I mainly noticed. The English subtitles provide a natural sounding translated script. Even if there isn't enough time to explain how mahjong is played, the dialogue makes it easy to follow the action of the game and for the most part to understand the characters' strategies.
Some people will understandably object to this movie based on the plot description. On the face of it, the movie sounds like a cruel fantasy of captive women at its worse and a cheap sexploitation product at its best. Both opinions are valid. However, I think it is redeemed by its sense of humor and its attention to the gambling storyline. There is a lot going on in this movie and none of it is taken too seriously. Of course, the main draw of the film is the plentiful scenes of female nudity and it definitely doesn't disappoint in that department. The surprise is how creatively the film can conjure variations on delivering the same payoff.
Guilty, of course, but creatively so.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
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