Wu Qingyuan (The Go Master) (Zhuangzhuang Tian, 2006)
There are touches of Yasujiro Ozu in the way Zhuangzhuang Tian sets up a number of his shots in this film, and that can never be a bad thing; Ozu, one of Japan’s masters of slow film, knew how to take the most rudimentary scene and make it into something exquisite, and any director who tries to follow in those footsteps is probably going to end up with something better than he otherwise would have. On the other hand, if you’ve read any random half-dozen of my movie reviews, you are probably well aware that 99% of the time, when I use the phrase “very pretty” to describe a movie, it’s in the pejorative. A movie can be very beautiful indeed, but when the filmmaker also intends that movie to have substance (unlike, for example, Brakhage’s exquisite “Window Water Baby Moving”, which is just meant to be beautiful), he can make a film as pretty as he wants, but if he misses the mark with his substance, the movie will end up feeling off. And such is the case with Wu Qingyuan, which is a very pretty thing indeed, but also a very flawed one.
Plot: Wu (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s Chen Chang) is a Chinese national raised in Japan; his lifelong dream, since he discovered a talent for it at a very young age, is to be the best Go player in the world. And if you’re going to be a championship Go player, there’s nowhere to be but Japan. Which is all well and good…except for Wu being in the wrong place at the wrong time on a tremendous scale. The movie, which is based on Wu’s autobiography, takes place in the early thirties, as Japanese nationalism takes hold, and Japan turns its military might upon its closest mainland neighbor—China. Wu, and many of those around him, including his gaming contemporaries and the people who run the various boardinghouses at which Wu stays during the film, attempt to ignore the growing prejudice against the Chinese. Unfortunately, it breaks into their routine all too often, threatening on a regular basis to derail Wu’s Go-playing career.
Qingyuan Wu is still alive; he celebrated his ninety-ninth birthday about two weeks before I started writing this review. He stopped playing Go in 1964 after suffering nerve damage in a motorcycle accident in 1961, so the movie’s final title card tells us (and the Wikipedia entry on Wu confirms), but (spoiler alert!, though it happens after the end of the movie) he did in fact realize his dream: Wu is considered one of the greatest Go players of the 20th century, having achieved 9 dan status in 1950. I’m telling you all this because you’re probably not going to get it from the movie. Tian has done an excellent job at setting the scene, and the sound is wonderful (if you’ve read the Hikaru no Go manga and always wondered exactly what the “clack” sounded like…). The actors do the best they can with Cheng Ah (Hibiscus Town)’s impressionist script (to date, the last he has written), but there simply isn’t a great deal there about the two subjects that are going to raw most people to this film: Qingyuan Wu, the person (as opposed to Qingyuan Wu, the Chinese guy stuck in Japan at the time of the Manchurian invasion and all the Unit 731 goings-on), and the game of Go. So I’m back where I started: it’s a very pretty, but shallow, thing. ** ½