"The Go Masters" may be paved with good intentions, but that doesn't keep the road from getting awfully muddy. A pamphleteer's movie promoting International Understanding, it is itself a tribute to the new era of good feelings between Japan and China (it's their first coproduction). But the Big Statement is all that's clear amidst "The Go Masters' " epic confusion.
The movie centers on the Japanese game of Go, in which two players maneuver black and white round stones on a grid-inscribed board. Kuang (Sun Dao-Lin) is a Chinese Go champion with a young son, A-ming (Shen Guan-Chu), who shows promise in the game; Matsunami (Rentaro Mikuni), a Japanese Go star, offers to bring the boy back to Japan with him as a student. Frightened by the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, Kuang finally agrees.
Go is all that matters to these characters, but they're unable to stay aloof from the onrush of international events. Japan and China go to war; as a Chinese, A-ming becomes persona non grata in his adopted land. When Kuang and Matsunami, a mere private in the invading army, reunite over the Go table, circumstances have altered radically: They're forced to play by a sadistic Japanese officer cum Go fanatic who hovers above them with a samurai sword. The cerebral joys of the game are lost in the ravenous tides of history.
"The Go Masters" takes place in 1945, when Kuang journeys to Japan in search of his son; but much of the story is told in flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, and flash-forwards that take it into the era of the People's Republic. With all this flashing, the movie is almost impossible to follow, mostly because the characters are so ill-drawn. They aren't people so much as the kind of world-historical figures endemic to Communist cinema, thrown in to prove a point about the horrors of imperialistic war and the importance of cooperation. As the movie goes back and forth through history like a Ping-Pong ball in a tornado, it asks you to struggle to keep track of characters you don't care about.
Directed jointly by a Japanese (Junya Sato) and a Chinese (Duan Ji-Shun), the movie has a schizo style: You associate the hectoring tone of the political lessons with Chinese Communism, while the shrieking women and bravura violence come out of the Japanese tradition. And "The Go Masters" is marred by a gimmicky camera, including herky-jerky pans, rapid zooms, wipes, irises and freeze-frames, that merely distracts an audience already confounded by the plot.
Sun and Mikuni give quietly authoritative performances as the Go masters of the title; the movie's best moments are the few when they're on screen together. As they stand on the Great Wall in the movie's last scene and play out an imaginary game in their minds, you wish that, like the Go masters, these filmmakers had been impervious to politics. "The Go Masters," opening today at the West End Circle, is unrated, but contains one scene of graphic violence.