Dir: Tian Zhuangzhuang. Chi. 2006. 107mins.
The latest feature from Fifth Generation Chinesefilm-maker Tian Zhuangzhuang,The Go Master is an austere, poeticstudy of one of the most famous 20th-century players of the Japanese board gameGo, considered the most complicated strategy game in the world. As reticent asits central character (played by Wong Kar-wai regularChang Chen), this is a slow-moving arthouse titlethat tests the resilience of its audience.
At once inscrutable andravishing, The Go Master builds athematic depth out of what at first appears to be a rambling biopic structure,the theme being whether or not it is construct a personal and spiritual spacethat is somehow outside of history.
Shot and set partly in Chinaand partly in Japan, this pan-Asian film features a mix of Japanese, Chineseand Taiwanese actors and crew, a set-up that recalls HouHsiao-hsien's CafeLumiere. Japanese interest in the exercise wasconfirmed during this year's Cannes market, when SPO Entertainment picked the filmup from Fortissimo (perhaps this has something to do with the fact that thetraditional game of Go has become sexy in Japan once more after being featuredin the manga and anime series Hikaru Nu Go). It is likely to be a nicheproduct in Japan, China and other parts of the region, with scattershotdistribution beyond that.
The film is based on thememoirs of Wu Qingyuan, the Go Master of the titleand now in his nineties. The dramatic nexus of the story is the fact that Wuwas born in China, while Go - although it originated in China - had by the 20thcentury become the national board game of Japan.
A Go progidy,Wu moved to Japan in 1928, when he was just 14, taking Japanese citizenship afew years later, and gradually rose through the ranks until he was crowned theunbeatable master of the game in 1949. In the meantime, however, relationsbetween Wu's native and adopted countries were less than rosy, especially afterthe Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
Zhuangzhuang and scriptwriter Ah Cheng portray Wu as a painfullyprivate, shy and ascetic man who is totally dedicated to Go.For Wu, this game of strategy - in which the two players attempt to encircleeach others' pieces - is above the real world, in a purer dimension. The clackof the oval pieces on the wooden board and the ultra-shallow focus of Wang Yu'spin-sharp cinematography, create a space apart from the chaos outside.
With his loose, plain suitsor robes, his shaved head and round priestly glasses, Wu comes across as aBuddhist monk - and in fact he is always looking for spiritual succour, mostnotably during the chaotic years of the war in the Pacific, when he and hisyoung bride Nakahara (Itou Ayumi) attach themselvesto the Jiu Kyou cult, oneof many that proliferated in the apocalyptic climate of wartime Japan.Centre-screen captions fill us in on much of this historical baggage.
This is a taciturn film, somuch so that we're never quite sure how critical it intends to be of Wu'spassivity. Certainly, with his autistic, shuffling gait and failure to react heoften comes across as a pathetic figure - but at the same time he does manageto create a stillness around himself that is arresting and often touching.
The conflict engendered byhis status as a king of privileged enemy alien is played down to an almostfrustrating degree, coming out only in couple of striking scenes. In one Wu isattracted by the noises of a party, only to discover that everyone iscelebrating the subjugation of his homeland; and in another he prowls throughthe cramped and rigidly divided spaces of a Japanese domestic interior, like awild beast who's wandered by mistake into an Ozu movie.
The war itself mostlyhappens off screen - even more so than in ThePianist - and we see nothing that is going to be controversial for eitherChinese or Japanese audiences, giving the countries' shared history. It couldbe argued that one of The Go Master'sfailings is the notion that Wu suffered nothing more than a vague identitycrisis during the conflict: surely somebody who so obviously looked Chinese andhad a marked Chinese accent when he spoke Japanese must have had a fewproblems'
Curiously, we also learnlittle of the rules of Go itself. The film is more interested in the priestlycaste that the game created, in which respect for one's adversary is sacrosanct(there is never any hint of direct racism towards Wu). There is also an oftenperverse dedication to the game, over and above the claims of life, family andhistory.
This is most tellingly, andexaggeratedly, conveyed in a scene where a Go master orders his charges tocontinue their game which has been interrupted by the little matter of anatomic bomb going off on the other side of the city.
The meditative nature of theexercise is underlined by a solo-piano and heavenly-choir soundtrack, which isas sparse as everything else - including the editing, so elliptical that welose track, once or twice, of the logical or temporal connections betweenscenes. And the biopic format leads to some inertia in the rather inert finalpart of Wu's life and career. But The GoMaster, in its Zen way, is more memorable than the sum of these fewdrawbacks might suggest.
Century Hero Film Investment Co
Yeoman Bulky Corp
Michael J Werner