On paper, The Go Master [Wu Qingyuan] isn't the type of film that should appeal to me. Biopics aren't really my thing, Go isn't really my sport (if you can even call it that) and pre-WWII Japan isn't my favorite place and time in history. On the other hand, Zhuangzhuang built up plenty of credit with Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun and The Warrior and the Wolf and with Chen Chang leading the film I didn't have to think twice to give it a go. Watching the film a second time around, I'm still incredibly happy I made that jump all those years ago.
Go isn't the most exciting of games, but it is a perfect embodiment of some very typical Asian mental models and ideals. There's the obvious contrast between the simplicity of the rules and the complexity of the actual game (it is said that no two games of Go have ever been the same), then there is the tranquil, almost spiritual disposition of its players, almost in trance and sometimes stretching out a game over multiple days. It's a very pure game, played with honour and urging the players to test their strategic limits.
The film is named after the biggest Go player that ever lived, Wu Qingyuan (or Go Seigen if you prefer his Japanese name) who just passed away last month at the respectable age of 100. As a young kid he was named a prodigy by the local Go players, but Qingyuan was born in China and all the important Go competitions were held in Japan. Qingyuan persevered and travelled to Japan to master the game, but with World War II approaching his social position wasn't an easy one.
The film follows Qingyuan on his travels throughout Japan. About a quarter of the it is spent on actual Go-related matters, the rest zooms in on Qingyuan's love life, his struggles with faith, the way his frail physical condition saved him from going off to war and the friends he made as a Go player. There's quite some jumping around in time, but that's to be expected from a biopic. Those expecting a rare insight in Qingyuan's private life will be left disappointed though, as the film's subject remains quite vague and enigmatic throughout.
The visuals mimic the film's peaceful, zen-like core. The camera moves slowly, deliberately and meticulously through the sets, observing the world in a very rigid, stern yet respectful manner. But there's also a grim and gloomy side to the cinematography. Even though there are some brighter outdoor scenes, colors are often muted, hanging over the film like a dark veil. This is a reflection of Qingyuan's inner struggles as he tries to find a good balance between his passion (playing Go) and the personal issues he has to deal with.
The soundtrack is the perfect companion to the visuals. It's more outspoken compared to Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun (but then every soundtrack is), yet it remains a very introverted, subtle selection of tracks, surfacing only when it's able to add something substantial to a particular scene. The rest of the film is accompanied by slightly accentuated ambient noises, more in line with stilted Japanese dramas.
Chen Chang (Yi Dai Zhong Shi, Zui Hao De Shi Guang, Soom) is without a doubt one of the best Asian actors of the moment and it's always a joy to see him in a challenging role like this. Qingyuan isn't the most emotive character and even though Zhuangzhuang isn't out to unravel all his mysteries, the person you see on screen is someone who makes perfect sense. The supporting cast is commendable too, but this really is Chang's moment of glory.
The Go Master differs from more traditional biopics in the sense that even though Zhuangzhuang allows you to get close to his main subject, the audience still has to do most of the work. Apart from some more direct quotes appearing onscreen, Zhuangzhuang prefers to show rather than tell. Qingyuan remains a somewhat opaque and mysterious character throughout, even though by the end of the film I felt a very clear and strong connection to the man. It's an approach that many other biopics could learn a thing or two from.
Go really isn't the most exciting of sports, but even the matches are filmed with enough integrity and mystery to make them appear tense and interesting. Zhuangzhuang Tian may not have made the most coherent biopic here, but when it comes to capturing a person as a whole he did a splendid job. The Go Master is a rather slow and moody film, but there's beauty pouring from its seams. With the real Qingyuan passing on just last month, it's a shame not more was heard from this film.