You don't know what you have even when it's in front of you; that's the truism that popped into my mind after reading the amazing critical reception given to Tian Zhuangzhuang's latest film on Go-playing legend Wu Qingyuan, as typified by this short scribble by NYT's AO Scott. How many times have we complained about biopic cliches, especially sports biopics and in particular chess biopics? The hyped-up action sequences; the impossibility of giving the audience any sense of the game's shape and rhythms and strategies; the need for a big finish and win--or at least a Pyrrhic victory that shows the hero's a winner at heart.
And when we finally get a film that avoids all those cliches, finds a subject matter that sidesteps the need for such cliches and develops a whole other approach towards illuminating that subject? We get cliched complaints about 'lack of drama' and "dull 'n stately."
acquarello of Strictly Film School has it right, I think; it uses techniques similar to Hou Hsiao Hsien's to depict a "humble, yet remarkable life lived in the periphery of turbulent human history"--Bertolucci's anti-drama The Last Emperor, in effect, done on a far smaller scale, and this time done right.
Actually there's no lack of conventional drama unconventionally (and superbly) realized: when Wu steps into a roomful of cheering Japanese, he smiles uncomprehendingly until a board is paraded into the room displaying a map of China, the Japanese flag spread all over its northeast territories like small pox;when his wife informs him that she's leaving the religious sect they are both part of, Zhuangzhuang cuts to a long shot of the bus Wu is riding as it stops and lets Wu out; he starts walking back, hesitates, turns, walks towards the long-departed bus, hesitates, turns, and sinks to the ground in frustration.
Wu's relationship with his Japanese wife Kazuo is a prime example of Zhuangzhuang's obscure style. We never see the two kiss, or caress each other, or flirt or tease or whisper sweet nothings into the other's ear; instead, Zhuangzhuang gives us an episode where the two go buy a sack of potatoes--Wu lifts the sack up, has trouble, uncomplainingly accepts his wife's assistance. Not a word is said, and the two don't even come into direct physical contact (their bodies are more intimately involved with the sack), but a more sharply poignant image of love and shared hardship I have not seen in recent films.
Key to the film's approach is the way Zhuangzhuang shoots the matches: spare, zenlike sketches where every detail (the clack of stone on wood block, a flash of lightning illuminating the board) stands out in stark contrast to the surrounding serenity, then cuts away from the action to focus on his real concerns. The complexity of Go is suggested, never shown; a few brief details (shots of the bewilderingly complex game board; mention of Wu's innovative 'Four Corner Star' strategy, early in the film), but not much beyond that, which actually adds to the fascination: a sense of mystery surrounds the game (the rules are actually simple enough; it's the tactics used that are incredibly complex).
Zhuangzhuang not just shifts focus from the conventional priorities of a sports biopic, but shapes his storytelling to reflect the nature of the game--if in Go the goal is to 'take territory,' usually in the corners, where boundaries help make the conquest easier, then take the sides using the corners for boundary, then the center using sides and corners for boundary. his film follow a similarly elliptical arc. He begins by focusing on disparate physical details (sounds, shapes, textures, even smell (someone at one point farts during a game; the audience titters before turning full attention back on the board) and facial expressions (or relative lack of)), establishes their significance (at one point, a physically incapacitated player insists on getting up because he needs to "watch while my oponent ponders!") before making a stab at attacking the inner essence of a man playing the game.
Chang Chen's performance embodies the essence of Go playing. Outside of competition he's a geek with thick glasses, waddling around in a ducklike gait as he shuffles out of peoples' way. In competition he has the intensity of a world champion, with a laser beam stare and ears that shut out all other distracting sounds and voices. To understand his character you need to understand not the game but the kind of mindset focused on winning the game; any change of circumstance in his life (fallen opponents, unstable religious figures, a world war) he responds to with a blinkered look, incapable of understanding how such a thing--how such a betrayal--can be visited upon him.
Unlike recent examples such as Inarritu's Babel, Yang Heah-hoon's Who's That Knocking On My Door? does the we-are-all-interconnected bit (two couples and a renegade are tied together by a dead body and the internet) with deadpan flair and a genuine sense of perversity. The director creates characters interesting enough to draw you in--a bullied student who locks himself in his bedroom and plots revenge online, a hyperchondriac zookeeper with strong psychotic tendencies--and grounds them in enough realistic, understated detail that you find yourself accepting his rather unique sensibility, a mixture of roughly equal parts Larry Clark, Robert Bloch, Kurosawa Kiyoshi. Objects and motifs fly about--a flute, a dart gun, a cellphone camera, a ball of crumpled paper (the film gives the ball a fetishistic quality that recalls the fluttering plastic bag in American Beauty, only where Mendes' footage was mostly dull, Yang achieves real existential horror)--all overlaid by the tapping of computer keyboards. Online remarks creep across the screen, giving advice, offering condolence, threatening vigilante justice; at one point Yang fashions a terrifying episode involving a stolen light bulb and a gang of angry stall owners that has you by turns rooting for and crying out against the psychotic hyperchondriac.
But it isn't all clever plot twists and shock value; there's a sharp poignancy to the characters' loneliness, and a generosity of spirit to everyone, even the sexually predatory bully, that makes you confident whatever new wrinkle the plot may acquire, the director won't 'cheat'--that is, he won't twist without prior preparation, and said twist won't take the most conventional, least interesting direction.
The film ends as it begins, with a figure balanced precariously on ice. The figure, facing a hole in said ice, walks carefully around the hole, the ice around him creaking and threatening to give way. It's as neat an image as anything one might think of to summarize the director's view of life--as a creaking, threatening brittle medium on which to skate, carefully avoiding the open breaks.