‘The Go Master’ is a glimpse into a famed master’s life

Go is an ancient Asian board game for two players with the objective of claiming territory ; it’s a game of small battles and strategy between black and white. I don’t claim to understand the game and I’ve never played it, but Go was considered one of four things every Chinese gentleman should know. “The Go Master” is about a go prodigy named Wu Qingyuan (吳清源) who was born in China, but came to call Japan his home.

This 2006 movie is a Chinese production but most of the dialogue is in Japanese. In Japan Wu became known as Go Seigen.

Before the credits, the film takes us to Odawara, Japan in 2004 at Master Wu’s house. After the credits we learn see a young boy, filmed in black and white. The subtitles explain that Wu began learning Go at 7 from his father. The traditional Chinese bed tells us where we are.

From there we see feet in black tabi. We are in Japan. Wu has been sent to Japan to study under Go Master Segoe Kensaku (Emoto Akira) from 1928. Wu was 14 at the time. By the time Wu (Taiwanese actor Chang Chen) was 18, he had entered the professional world of Go. Wu, or rather, Go Seigen and his friend Kitani Minoru are recognized as the founders of modern Go.

However, 1932 was a troubling time for a Chinese national to be in Japan. Minor military fighting in China began toward the end of 1931 and would eventually lead to the second Sino-Japanese War from 7 July 1937.  When the war finally concluded in 1945 (September), the Chinese Civil War would resume.

Director Tian Zhuangzhuang assumes a lot and prefers to show rather than tell (screenplay by Ah Cheng and Zhou Jingzhi). Go Seigen joins in a celebration of Japan’s war victory until he realizes it meant the defeat of Japan. We don’t see his courtship of a young girl, Kazumi (Ito Ayumi) he presents with a book authored by him and Kitani, but we see their wedding. During the physical for possible draft into the Japanese imperial army, the doctor clearly knows who he is. Just as the Japanese audience would know him and Kitani.

Wu was not only Kitani’s great friend, but also his greatest rival. The Kamakura jubango (a ten game match beginning in 1939 and ending in 1941) resulted in Kitani’s defeat. Kitani was, as illustrated in the movie, plagued by poor health and the long matches, sitting in traditional Japanese style, required fortitude. Kitani died in 1975 but his daughter was also an exceptional player, marrying one of his best students (Koichi Kobayashi). Their child became a high-ranking player.

Perhaps because Wu is still alive and an honored figure and because Kitani’s influence is still felt in the world of Go, this movie remains respectful and emotionally superficial.

There’s no attempt to intrude into his intimate life nor is there any direct criticism of his decision to stay in Japan when his homeland was at war with his adopted country, even when we see him going through a physical for possible induction into the Japanese Imperial Army. Would he have served? And what about his involvement with the questionable religious movement?

This movie “The Go Master” is not a documentary, but a biopic and it takes a neutral position on Go Seigen or Wu Qingyuan. It’s a beautifully filmed (cinematography by Wang Yu) romanticized version meant to honor a great living figure. For those of us unfamiliar with Go, it gives us an  glimpse at this traditional game, but not insight into one of its most famous figures.

The Go Master” is currently available for instant streaming on Netflix. In Chinese and Japanese with English subtitles.

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