Befitting a game whose matches last for days and whose tournaments stretch to months, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s biopic of legendary Chinese Go master Wu Qingyuan unfolds contemplatively, as sparing with dialogue as it is with action. Pic’s dramatic tensions arise not from the competitions, presented with a half-perverse Zen-like refusal to show who won or lost, but from intrusions of the often violent background history as Wu, living in Japan, suffers psychic turmoil during the escalating conflict between his native and adoptive countries. Perhaps the least accessible of Tian’s films, this serenely elliptical poser will elude all but the most devoted arthouse auds.
A series of striking, if mysterious, images establish Wu as a solitary child of privilege in China, before his precocity at Go earns him an invitation to train and compete in Japan. He quickly establishes himself as a master of unsurpassed skill, reigning undefeated.
Tian doesn’t chronicle Wu’s victories. The ritualistic openings rounds of a few matches and occasional glimpses of Wu pensively pondering a patterned layout stand in for a lifetime of competition. No knowledge of the game is needed, Tian instead showcasing Wu’s extraordinary powers of concentration.
Wu is incarnated by charismatic Taiwanese actor Chang Chen (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Happy Together”). Chang, speaking an unfamiliar language, sporting Clark Kentish spectacles and moving with a jerky little wooden walk, successfully conveys the game master’s calm intensity in a quietly mesmerizing performance.
The film is structured as a series of tableaux with little connective tissue, as syntactically minimalist as a Chinese poem and frequently surrounded by nature. Key scenes take place in gardens, over footbridges or set against the austerity of an undecorated room dominated by two wooden bowls and a gameboard.
Explanations, when offered, often arrive long after the fact in the form of interpolated title cards (many of them verbatim passages from the still living Wu Qingyuan’s noted autobiography). Wu’s tuberculosis is revealed by a mere single cough followed by a stay in a secluded sanatorium.
In scattered bursts throughout, world events pierce through the cloistered walls of Go in impressionistic narrative shorthand. Thus Japan’s invasion of Wu’s homeland unexpectedly intrudes during a scene when he had joined a bunch of cheering Japanese students singing patriotic songs. A tournament in Hiroshima is disrupted as players and board are blown across the room by the blinding atomic blast.
Almost from the first, Wu’s search for spiritual centeredness sets his personality apart. Wu’s need to spiritually insulate himself from the uncertainties of politics seemingly mirrors Tian’s own tendency (after being banished from filmmaking for making “Blue Kite”) to physically distance himself — from the Chekhovian stagnation of “Springtime in a Small Town” to the stunning, formally isolationist docu “Delamu.”
Tian reserves his most memorably dramatic effects, therefore, for crises of faith. Wu’s inner turbulence is outwardly manifested by the loss of physical equilibrium as he paces, staggers and finally crawls back and forth, his increasingly frenetic movement deconstructing the tranquil stillness of the frame.
Thesping, by the all-star, largely Japanese cast is splendidly subdued, with Nishina Takashi particularly fine as Wu’s Friar Tuck-ish Go buddy. Oscar-winning costumer designer Emi Wada, famed for the extravagance of her outfits for such lavish productions as “Ran,” “Dreams,” “Hero,” and “House of Flying Daggers,” here fashions far subtler designs of earth tones and khakis. Superb lensing by Wang Yu (“Suzhou River”), Tian’s cinematographer on “Delamu,” solidly anchors the frame with compositions of almost mystical presence.