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June 02, 2007

Aurora (Colorado) Asian Film Festival, Part 2

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The Go Master/Wu Qingyuan
Tian Zhuangzhuang - 2006
Fortissimo Films 35mm Film

In some ways, the Friday night pairing of Tian Zhaungzhauang’s The Go Master with Johnny To's Exiled was complementary. The beginnings of both films are similar with their lack of dialogue and concentration on the formalities of their characters' functions. Whether it's the game of Go or an order to kill on behalf of a mobster, there are rules that must be obeyed, and strategies regarding how one interacts with one's opponent. Tian films close ups of the Go table and the stones being set up, while To films his three gangsters methodically preparing their guns for Exiled's initial shootout. Both films are about men who define themselves within specific groups that operate independently traditional society.

The Go Master is perhaps a more difficult film to appreciate. Nothing in the film explains how the game is played, or why games have been known to last for days, perhaps longer. Tian's film is about Wu Quigyuan, who as a child prodigy in the game of Go could be thought of, in passing as similar to Bobby Fischer in mastering their respective games, Go and Chess, at a young age, and placing their professional status as game players above almost everything else. Wu is famous for not only his lengthy tenure as the top Go of the world, but also for introducing new strategies for playing the game. The need to remain a Go champion was so great for Wu that he chose to live in Japan as a professional Go Master.

The main narrative of the film takes place between 1933 and 1945, the years that the military government of Japan began planning for war against China culminating in World War II. Wu essentially makes himself an exile from China by becoming a Japanese citizen, although in his mind the act is apolitical. Wu status as a Go champion is enough to earn him deferment from military activity. While outside events force the players to move their tournaments to different locations, what happens on the Go board is of greater concern than what may be occurring beyond the dim rooms. A tournament is moved from Tokyo to Hiroshima. Even though the audience is set up to anticipate what will happen, the scene of the tournament is still astonishing. The players are seen surrounded by a bright light that eventually envelopes them. A huge, explosive force pushes slams against the men and their house. Pulling themselves out of the debris, the men resume the game.

More baffling for Western audiences, is a subplot about Wu's involvement with a religious group. During the time that it became obvious that Japan would be defeated, Wu became devoted to a group centered on a woman who claimed to be the goddess Joki. Without knowledge about Japan in the latter years of World War II, or the chaos of the postwar years, these scenes are almost incomprehensible.

For much of the film, Tian has chosen to create the filmic equivalent to the game of Go. Even when the game is not being played, the film is composed of shots with only ambient sound, little dialogue, and deliberate and carefully composed movements. For reasons mentioned above, the film is less easy to appreciate than Tian's famous remake of Spring in a Small Town. The Go Master is beautiful to watch, even if one has no understanding of the rules of this game.

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Exiled/Fong Juk
Johnny To - 2006
Magnolia Pictures 35mm Film

Exiled is yet another meditation on the gangster life by Johnny To. The film centers on what is revealed to be a group of five childhood friends who have grown up to be low level criminals. One of the friends, Wo, is to be shot for attempting to kill Boss Fay. Two of the friends show up ordered to perform the hit on Wo, while two others appear to protect Wo. Following a three way shoot out inside Wo's house, the five agree on a temporary truce that evolves with them all being targeted by Boss Fay.

For To, all of the characters are inescapably tied to each other. Equally inescapable is the fate of the gangsters. The opening sequence of Exiled shows To at his most confident, with his use of overhead shots as the characters seek strategic positions, and the close ups of hands manipulating guns and bullets. None of the gangsters is especially competent at dealing with business or guns. The nominal leader of the five exiles, played by Anthony Wong, hedges his bets by wearing a bullet proof vest and making decisions based on a coin toss. The five find themselves continually running into Boss Fay and his men while attempting to run away from him.

Exiled is Johnny To's send-up and homage to Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. While the shifting loyalties existed throughout the Dollars trilogy, the discovery of a legendary cache of gold especially recalls The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The film culminates in a final gun battle that is To's version of the finale in The Wild Bunch. The goofiness of Wong's group might remind some of Ben Johnson and Warren Oates as the Gorch brothers, or Ernest Borgnine's humanitarian killer who reminds the audience that at least they don't hang anyone.

What was the greatest pleasure was seeing Exiled with an audience that for the most part had never seen a film by Johnny To, and was delighted by the experience. For myself, it took a few moments to overcome the disorientation of seeing the Media Asia logo on a theater screen after countless DVDs. Exiled and The Heroic Trio have been the only films I've seen by To theatrically. For Johnny To, Exiled is "all about the rhythm and music of the action scenes.". This is one movie that needs to be seen as big and as loud as possible for maximum enjoyment.

Posted by peter at June 2, 2007 01:14 PM