The Go Master


Richard James Havis
New York Film Festival

NEW YORK -- In this Chinese biopic about a master of the Go board game, Tian Zhuangzhuang ("The Blue Kite") focuses wholly on the character and psychology of his subject, so the film is pensive and quiet for its entire 106 minutes. Although the story takes place during a tumultuous period, historical events never obscure the gaming genius' story. Rather it's a scrupulous examination of a somewhat naive intellectual.

"The Go Master" could do well in specialized art house theaters in the U.S., especially if marketing harps on about its superficial resemblance to the work of Taiwanese art house favorite Hou Hsiao-hsien. "Go" doesn't explain its historical setting, and that could be a problem, though audiences only need to know that Japan was invading China at the time. After playing the New York Film Festival, the film is screening in competition at Rome.

Go is an ancient board game in which players place pieces on a grid to claim territory. It's a game of strategy that is as revered in East Asia as chess is in the West. Go was invented in China but later became very popular in Japan, where the bulk of this film is set. "Go" details the life of Chinese-born master gamer Wu Qingyuan (Chang Chen), who spent most of his career playing in Japan.

The story highlights key periods of Wu's life. His Go-playing skills were noticed at a young age, so he was invited to Japan to play professionally. He became a champion in Japan and married the leader of a Japanese Buddhist sect. When the Japanese invaded China, Wu remained in Japan. He finally lost his uncanny ability to win at Go after being hit by a motorcycle.

Wu says he devoted his life to "truth and Go," which is the dual focus of Tian's film. Wu's dedication to the rigorous intellectual exercises that comprise the game are highlighted, as is his naive search for spiritual meaning as part of the sun-worshipping sect. The psychological implications of his choice to stay in Japan while that country was invading China are addressed in the background.

Esthetically, the film's a joy to watch, using a palette of rich, subdued colors and some elegant camera moves that resolutely refuse to speed up. Taiwanese actor Chang plays Wu with an introspective intensity. Sylvia Chang immerses herself in a supporting role as his mother. The real-life Wu, now in his 90s, makes a short appearance in a prologue.

Tian's Fifth Generation colleagues, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, who attended the Beijing Film Academy with him, recently have been making commercial films rather than the art house works that established them. Tian always was considered the elder brother of the Fifth Generation, so it's refreshing to see him still making challenging work.

Fortissimo Films presents a Century Hero Investment Co. and Yeoman Bulky Corp. production
Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Screenwriter: Ah Cheng
Producer: Liu Xiaodan
Executive producers: Wouter Barendrect, Michael J. Werner
Director of photography: Wang Yu
Production designer: Emi Wada
Music: Zhao Li
Costume designer: Emi Wada
Editor: Yang Hongwu
Wu Qingyuan: Chang Chen
Shu Wen: Sylvia Chang
Wu Yan: Xin Baiqing
Nakahara Kazuko: Itou Ayumi
Segoe Kensaku: Emoto Akira
Running time -- 116 minutes
No MPAA rating