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  • TBC
  • Biography, Drama
  • 2006
  • 107 mins

The Go Master

The Go Master

Synopsis

A Chinese Go-playing prodigy seeks enlightenment and peace in a nation at war with his own. Tian Zhuangzhuang directs this biopic of Wu Qingyuan, adapted from the Go master's autobiographical writings

About

"You've got to play quietly." So says Minoru Kitani (Nishina), lifelong friend of Go master Wu Qingyuan (Chen), to the group of young children under his tutelage - and it is a lesson which director Tian Zhuangzhung (Springtime In A Small Town, The Blue Kite ) takes to heart in his Wu biopic The Go Master.

For while Wu was a Chinese national residing as an alien in Japan during several decades of great political turbulence between the two countries (including Japan's colonisation of Manchuria and invasion of China in the 1930s, the Pacific War that dominated the 1940s, and the Cold War of the 1950s), Zhuangzhuang portrays Go as a game that "knows no nations" - a haven of friendship, respect and extraordinary calm amid a sea of troubles.

Born in 1914, Wu's great talent for playing the chess-like game of strategy was recognised in his early teens, leading him to move from China to Japan (as the game itself did in the post-Meiji era). There, he would defy press racism, rising nationalism and his own physical weakness to defeat all challengers, buoyed by his own immense focus and abiding religious faith. Indeed, Wu's life is portrayed as a quest for "ultimate enlightenment", and everything else, whether it be the vagaries of history or the move-by-move details of his Go tournaments, is subordinated to Wu's spiritual journey. The Go Master is a remarkably oblique work. Without the pieces of expository text (adapted from Wu's own autobiography) that regularly punctuate the film, his story would be well nigh impossible to follow - and even with them, viewers will need the close attention of a Go player to appreciate its many abstractions and ellipses.

Of course, there are inevitable irruptions of reality into what Wu refers to as "the world of Go," but these intrusions, apart from one life-changing collision with a motorcycle, make little dent, and all Wu's crises tend to be of a spiritual nature.

In one scene, Wu's intense concentration during a match leaves him oblivious to the nosebleed and subsequent collapse suffered by his opponent Minoru - and Minoru himself, when his friends struggle to take him to a doctor, insists on remaining behind with the words, "I want to watch while my opponent ponders." In another scene, two Go players in Hiroshima are shown being blown off their seats under the impact of the atomic bomb just dropped by the US. As they sit up in a daze, wondering what has just hit them, their referee (and Wu's mentor) Kensaku Segoe (Emoto) tells them: "Resume the match." Here Go is more than just a game - it is an apolitical respite from the ills of the material world, and its best players are regarded not just as champions but as "saints".

There can be no doubt that The Go Master will not appeal to everyone. Packed with events, these tend to be reduced to poetical flourishes. Though concerned with a professional Go player, there are few gaming sequences, and absolutely no scenes involving the sort of gamesmanship, cheating or eleventh-hour reversals that otherwise typify the whole sports genre. Set in the background of a vast sweep of history, its central character always seems to be cloistered and cocooned - whether in the Go academy, or in a sanatorium for his tuberculosis, or in one of the several religious cults to which he belonged. Wu is always looking inward, and even his succession of gaming triumphs in the most unlikely of circumstances is presented with a casual understatement that is rare in the modern biopic.

All of this is just another way of saying that Zhuangzhuang's film eschews all cliche, preferring to play quietly where others are satisfied to blare out so much empty noise. The Go Master is a delicate portrayal of a life devoted to contemplation - and cinematographer Wang Yu's every desaturated image is framed with an immense beauty, to match Zhuangzhuang's sublimely serene approach to narrative.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Chang Chen, Masayo Utsunomiya, Takayuki Inoue, Ayumi Ito, Kaho Minami, Takashi Nishina, Akira Emoto, Sylvia Chang, Masakane Yonekura, Li Xuejian
  • Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
  • Screen Writer: Ah Cheng
  • Writer (Story): Wu Qingyuan
  • Producer: Liu Xiaodin
  • Photographer: Wang Yu
  • Composer: Zhao Lin

In a nutshell

Featuring a game whose practitioners cultivate friendships rather than rivalries, in a time and a place where conflict was otherwise all too easy to find, The Go Master is a biopic of rare subtlety, delicacy and stillness.

by Anton Bitel

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