Back in 1992, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s bleak and controversial The Blue Kite, which follows the daily lives of an ordinary Beijing family in the times of Mao’s Cultural revolution, fell victim to the hypersensitive Chinese authorities who pulled the plug after seeing the first cut of the film. The raw footage was smuggled out of China and post-production was completed without the director having seen the final cut. In this form, the film found its way into the international festival circuit where it became a major critical and commercial success. Meanwhile, the blacklisted Tian was sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’ and it was feared that he’d lost interest in filmmaking until he made a triumphant return with the excellent Springtime in a Small Town in 2002. Tian Zhuangzhuang’s latest film to date, The Go Master, is now opening at the ICA as the centrepiece of the China in London 2008 film programme, which features a long overdue retrospective of Tian’s small but ground-breaking body of work.
The Go Master, in contrast with his earlier films, which mainly focused on ethnic minorities in China, portrays the legendary master of the ancient board game ‘Go’, Wu Quingyuan, and his struggle to cope with life as a prodigy. The film traverses some forty years of turbulent Chinese-Japanese history, from Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s through the Second World War and into the 1960s, bringing to life the political and social upheavals of the time through the details and circumstances that shape Wu’s extraordinary existence.
Born in China in 1914, Wu moves to Japan at a young age and is soon identified as a naturally talented Go player, establishing his reputation through a long competition against a Japanese master. Tutored by a harsh mentor while also battling tuberculosis as a young man, Wu is not driven to play Go merely by his love of the game but also by a search for inner peace, which also leads him to join a Buddhist sect.
The narrative charts Wu’s turbulent life, going backwards and forwards in time as though one were browsing through his diary, which is sometimes confusing. Audiences expecting the lush imagery that is associated with contemporary Chinese cinema might be disappointed and some might find its extremely slow pace boring. However, the film is a moving, intimate domestic drama, played out with subtle intensity on the characters’ faces. Perhaps Tian’s smartest move is to focus not on the wartime turmoil or on the nature of the chess-like game, but on the immense psychological struggle the master of Go faces every time he enters a new game. Chang Chen as Wu gives an outstanding performance of quiet power and brilliantly conveys the strangeness of being a prodigy. When not confined to the game board, he maintains an almost conspicuously low profile with his pale looks and introverted temper, whereas in competition he shows the intensity of a world champion, with a laser-sharp stare and a completely unshakeable concentration. In the film’s most startling scene, when the game is interrupted by an explosion after the atomic bomb has been dropped on Hiroshima, Wu’s only concern is to resume the game without delay.
Just like his central character, Tian maintains an even mood throughout the film. The characters may not all be well shaped; and the power of the images is undermined by the sometimes confusing sequence of events; but his strategy is one of understatement and it wonderfully complements the carefully elaborated visual style to create a beautifully shot and coherent whole.
While it seems a little odd that the China in London film programme features no films by Chen Kaige or Zhang Yimou, who are usually ranked first among China’s Fifth Generation film directors, the season is an opportunity to screen Tian’s lesser-known films together with other recent Chinese films. One wonders what Tian would have been able to achieve if he had not been banned from filmmaking for a decade; although The Go Master is not his masterpiece, it is an elegant biopic with sufficient psychological complexity to draw audiences deeply into the characters’ lives.
Spotlight Beijing: China in London Film Season runs from March 20 to April 10 at the ICA, London.