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The Go Master
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Chang Chen plays Go


Year: 2006
Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Cast: Chang Chen, Sylvia Chang, Akira Emoto, Aki Fuji, Mansaku Fuwa, Huang Yi, Takayuki Inoue, Ayumi Ito, Yoichiro Ito, Teruyuki Kagawa, Li Xuejian Li, Keiko Matsuzaka, Kaho Minami, Takashi Nishina, Hironobu Nomura, Nao Omori, Utaro Hashimoto
The Skinny: This elegant and restrained biopic of genius Go player Wu Qingyuan is quiet, contemplative, and absorbing, though the languid pace could lose many. Chang Chen underplays beautifully as the title character.
by Kozo:

Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite), The Go Master tells the real-life story of Wu Qingyuan, a genius Go player whose talent for the game was so profound that he was whisked away from his home in China and transplanted to Japan, where he began to compete in professional Go matches. Chang Chen stars as Wu Qingyuan (called Go Seigen by his adopted Japanese homeland), whose rise in the world of Go is chronicled in unglamorized, yet elegant detail. Wu begins his Go career in Japan along with his family (consisting of Sylvia Chang and Betty Huang), but the rise of Sino-Japanese tensions impel them to head back to China to escape any possible retribution in Japan. But Wu remains, continuing his almost single-minded pursuit of the game of Go. Wu meets the love of his life, Kazuko (Ayumi Ito), when he joins a messianic cult, after which his loyalties begin to change. Wu eventually decides to leave the game of Go, citing his devotion to his religion, but many events draw him back. His religious leader wishes for him to return to playing to help promote their beliefs, while his teacher (Akira Emoto) has long hoped for his return to the game. But real life seems to take its toll on the isolated, emotionally-adrift Wu Qingyuan, leading to an existential personal crisis, and possibly madness.

Audiences with short attention spans had best steer clear of The Go Master. The game of Go is not for the impatient anyway (a single match can last as long as a few months), and its elegance and intellectual fascination are not imparted on the audience at all, which could be viewed as a detriment to the picture. Without a clue as to how Go works, unfamiliar audiences may wonder why people are spending so much time sitting at a block of wood playing a game that looks like Othello. Of course, Go is vastly more popular in East Asia than in the rest of the world, and The Go Master is not a film for casual audiences anyway. Tian Zhuangzhuang is very hands-off in his approach to his subject matter - so hands off, in fact, that it's almost impossible to discern an active viewpoint in the film. The Go Master is not concerned with editorializing the life of Wu Qingyuan. Sure, the guy joined a cult, but the experience is presented matter-of-factly, and without any judgement. The film is concerned with Wu Qingyuan only, his personality and experience, and any and all events presented in the film simply depict what he went through. Based on his own autobiography, the film uses subtitled excerpts from Wu's own printed work to flesh out the occasional expository voiceover. The Go Master is just telling us how it was, either factually or filtered through the subject himself. The point of view is respectful, but unrevealing. Wu Qingyuan may be a genius and a legend, but his daily life is so bereft of action that he seems to be forever lost in thought. Unfortunately, typical movie audiences can't read minds.

Without a point of view to lean on, the audience may find itself, like the title character, to be a bit adrift. Wu Qingyuan is not a very active person. He seems frustratingly insular, and doesn't seem to relate to the world in an overt fashion. Contemplation is Wu Qingyuan's primary action, with both Go and with life, and the effect is ultimately loneliness, and a quietly desperate madness. Tian Zhuangzhuang reveals the character through action and events, and not through words. The technique at play here is almost invisible; the storytelling is elegant and quiet, taking on a languid and possibly dull quality. There's no tension or action here, just scenes from a man's life as he quietly struggles with change, both external and internal. There's no narrative drive, no bad guys or good guys. Meaning isn't created here by a series of actions; rather, each moment has its own meaning and exists as part of a greater tapestry, from the disruption of a Go game due to the bombing of Hiroshima, to a moment where Wu silently weeps at a roadside. In the end it's all supposed to lead us somewhere.

Or is it? Each moment suggests immediate meaning, but a greater, conclusive meaning is hard to ascertain. If any defining theme can be ascertained from The Go Master, it's that Wu struggled his whole life simply to figure out his own existence. Wu seems to forever be going through the motions, and never appears to do anything with a sense of purpose or desire. His existence seems almost abstract, and bereft of anything resembling material or physical satisfaction. Moments of humanity do come through - at one point, Wu admits to missing his wife terribly, and the moment is played up as a large revelation for him. Wu appears to be silently stretching for something greater in the distance, but what that is always seems to elude him. Chang Chen marvelously underplays as Wu Qingyuan, and rarely ever appears to be acting. Every gesture or mannerism from Chang is a part of Wu Qingyuan's personality, from his affected walk to his silent observation of the Go board. It's a part that's revelatory in its economy, and that same credit can be given to the film as a whole. The Go Master is disarmingly simple, but the beauty lies in its quiet details and authenticity. The negative here is that the film may be too passive, refusing to ever truly show the audience why Wu Qingyuan and his story should matter. But, unlike Wu's contemplative quest for meaning, The Go Master never seems to imply that any meaning truly exists. It's a film that reveals in each and every moment, and not in its final fifteen minutes. That could be too much - or perhaps too little - for some audiences. The Go Master doesn't announce its relevance, which is why it probably appears to have little. However, simply observing may be enough. (Kozo 2007)

Awards: 43rd Golden Horse Awards
• Nomination - Best Actor (Chang Chen)
• Nomination - Best Cinematography (Wang Yu)
• Nomination - Best Art Direction (Emi Wada, Etsuko Aikou)
• Nomination - Best Make-up and Costume Design (Emi Wada)
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese and Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 6.1ES / DTS EX
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
image courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen