When you think of Go, think of chess in steroids.
By Jorge Ignacio Castillo
THE PLOT: A documentary about the oldest board game in the world, The Surrounding Game focuses on Go as much as on the players. In theory a very simple game (the goal is to surround and eliminate your rival’s stones), Go allows by far more variations than chess. Because of the number of possibilities, you can only plan to a limited degree and thinking on your feet is encouraged. Go is detail oriented, but the board is large and keeping an eye on the big picture is key to win.
Unsurprisingly, Go incites obsession: The more you know, the least educated you feel. Far more popular in Asia than in the Western world, the film zeroes on a handful of American players trying to break into the upper echelons of the circuit.
CRITIQUE: Terrifically entertaining, you don’t need to know how to play Go to enjoy it (in fact, it’s very likely you’ll want to give it a shot after the doc ends). The Surrounding Game straddles the line between special interest documentary and crowd pleser. The film tries to cover the many crooks and bends of the Go culture (history, competitions, rankings) and for the most part, succeeds.
The movie’s biggest flaw is structural. Because of the all-encompassing approach, it feels episodic and the pieces don’t quite come together. A tournament to determine the US’ first certified Go professional gives The Surrounding Game a spine of sorts, but is not as interesting as the many detours the film takes. Given the magnitude of the endeavor, it’s a forgivable misstep.
* The interviewees are chosen wisely: The young Americans trying to break into the big leagues, the number one player who sees the game as art, the nonagenarian content with having spent big chunks of his life playing Go. All compelling.
* The film is very didactic and gets every point across with relative ease.
* The film’s top half is far more interesting than the rest. Watching other people playing Go it’s not exactly riveting.
* Similarly, the cinematography opens strong, but can’t keep it up.
RATING (CANADIAN CURVE): ***½
The Surrounding Game will play this Saturday, June 10th (11.30 AM, at TIFF Bell Lightbox) as part of the Canadian Sport Film Festival.