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A visual poem about an ancient game of competition and the pursuit of faith
Wu Qingyuan was born in China but has lived most of his life in Japan. Perhaps the greatest twentieth-century player of Go, the chess-like (but simpler and more ancient) territorial game of lenticular black and white stones on the grid square of a big wooden board. Wu was a Go prodigy, and his early victories led him to Japan at the age of fourteen. He dominated the game for over a quarter-century. This beautiful, sedately-paced film is based on his autobiography.
Tian's film is very Zen. You will learn nothing about Go from it and little about Wu (known as Go Seigen in Japan; curiously as "Go-sa"it makes him sound like "Mr. Go"). What you will get is a meditative but at times noisy visual poem starring the young Taiwanese actor Chang Chen, male lead of Hou Hsiau-hsien's Three Times, focused on a stoical, restrained, silent man who with quiet devotion pursued the game of Go and Faith, those two goals of competition and the spiritual quest, and little else, all of his life, among all the physical and mental challenges he faced and all the events of a turbulent century. The stern, clean-faced Chang's coolly intense performance, which rivets our attention at the film's center at all times, is a milestone in his career and shows him to be one of the strongest new Chinese film actors today. Chang knew a little Japanese prior to filming but for Tian this project imposed the discipline of shooting in a language of which he knew nothing. But Tian had Japanese assistant directors and production assistants he trusted and as he said in an interview, "Go players don't talk very much anyway." Nonetheless he acknowledges this was "very hard," similar to the problems faced by Hou in making Café Lumiere in Japan. Tian contemplated this project for a long time, and read Wu's autobiography shortly after returning to film-making following the nine-year break that followed The Blue Kite. Tian knows his own hardships. The realistic portrayal of the long period of the Cultural Revolution, its prelude and aftermath in the richly detailed Kite led to his being barred from film-making for years by the Chinese authorities.
Wu lived in Japan during the unstable and violent Thirties and Forties. He was playing a tournament on Hiroshima when it was bombed. According to the film, the referee instructs the players to play on in the wrecked room. Wu suffered periodically from tuberculosis. Its residual effects exempted him from military service. He married a Japanese woman named Kazuko, who's still with him (we glimpse the ninety-something, still vigorous Wu himself briefly at the film's opening). Wu's alive and well now, but in 1955 he was in a motor accident that caused him to stop playing. In his autobiography he wrote of this event that the God of competition abandoned him. Yet he still studies Go with passion.
The film is punctuated with titles denoting major events in Wu's life, along with a statement from his autobiography. Wu's pursuit of faith and search for relief from the intense mental stress of Go tournaments led him to join several religious cults, which are depicted in the film.
After Tian returned to film-making his first work was the relatively apolitical, Ibsenesque Springtime in Another Town. The Go Master might be a safe way of returning to politics and history, by approaching it through an apolitical man who lived in another country. But Tian never was never a stranger to controversy. His own vicissitudes and his growing maturity may simply have led him to respect a man devoted to the pursuit of inner goals.
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