Tian Zhuangzhuang made a name for himself with his 1993 film The Blue Kite. The attention had less to do with any certain departure for Tian than the Chinese government's trend of banning films in the early 90s, catapulting many Fifth Generation Mainland Chinese directors to international arthouse fame. Since then Zhang Yimou (whose films Ju Dou and To Live were banned) has moved on to become the Mainland's son of heaven director, and Chen Kaige (whose Farewell My Concubine was banned) has gone from feel good (Together 2002) to train wreck (The Promise 2005). The ban on The Blue Kite initially left Tian Zhuangzhuang defeated as the authorities accused him of submitting a false script and then of smuggling the film out of the country for a screening at Cannes. Restrictions on Tian slowly loosened, first allowing him to work as a producer and finally finding him back at the helm with his amazing remake of the classic Chinese film Springtime in a Small Town. Any criticism that Tian was playing it safe makes the false assumption that he had an agenda to provoke all along. Tian's most recent film The Go Master adds another film to his resume that proves him to be a expert storyteller and, above all, a craftsman of the screen.
The Go Master tells the story of Wu Qingyuan, father of the modern Go game. Born in China, Wu moved to Japan at a young age to pursue a natural talent for the ancient game of Go. His match against Honinbo Shusai in 1933 ushered in a new era for Go as Wu broke the pattern of opening moves and introduced the "Shin Fuseki" by placing his third move in the center of the board. I will be the first to admit, this is all a little above me. The rules of Go are deceptively simply, because the game itself is mind-bendingly complex. (A 19 x 19 gameboard yields theoretic game possibilities in numbers I don't even understand.) The point being that it takes a special person to master such a game. Wu Qingyuan was not only one of those special people, but was also caught in very special historic circumstances. At the height of his fame, Japan was already engaged in an aggressive campaign into China and on the brink of declaring war. Wu's life in Japan not only meant dealing with strong anti-Chinese sentiment and the residual knowledge that Japan, his host country, was invading China, his home country, but also dealing with the relentless fire-bombing from US forces.
Tian Zhuangzhuang organically roles out facts and scenes from Wu's life, never being too literal or melodramatic with the material, but also assuming that one would understand the historical significance of the time and place. Much of the film exudes the aesthetics of Go: patient, meditative, quiet and graceful. Chang Chen's performance lends his character a frailness that conveys Wu's mental and physical delicacy portrayed in the film. The languid pace, minimal dialogue and concise compositions of The Go Master are more reminiscent of the direction of contemporary Taiwanese auteurs than Fifth Generation Mainland directors. If his Mainland colleagues are guilty of excess, Tian may be guilty of restraint. The tone is set with the opening shot that briefly shows actor Chang Chen and the real Wu Qingyuan engaged in a casual chat, as if Tian wants to point out, this is the actor, this is the man and here is story. It's simplicity may be its one downfall. For all it's beauty and elegance, The Go Master never ascends beyond its biopic expectations. But that is assuming that it needs to.