Go

by Isao Yukisada (2001, Japan)

Chris has been raving about Yôsuke Kubozuka’s movie’s for quite some time now.  I’ve seen Ping Pong several times (and will hopefully post a review soon, because it really deserves to have its praises sung), but that was it.  I finally sat down to watch Go and yeah, I can see what Chris was talking about.  Kubozuka’s great in Ping Pong, but that movie is very much an ensemble movie, or at the very least, a buddy movie.  However, Kubozuka is the heart and soul of Go, so much so that he’s able to carry the movie even when it stumbles and hiccups in places.

Kubozuka plays Sugihara, who seems just like any other Japanese high school student, except for one thing—he’s actually Korean.  Which means discrimination and disparagement, not only from any Japanese who finds out his secret, but also from his former Korean classmates when he transfers to a Japanese school.

Things start to look up when he meets a young woman named Sakurai (Kou Shibasaki, who looks much sweeter here than in Battle Royale, where she played the murderous Mitsuko).  She finds him inexplicably fascinating, and her quirky behavior begins to lighten Sugihara’s mood.  However, he’s scared to tell her the truth about himself, for fear that she’ll reject him like all of the others.

And making matters even worse, his parents have problems of their own.  His father is a gruff old man whose solution to all of Sugihara’s problems is beating him senseless (that way, others will feel sorry for him) and his flighty mother barely seems able to handle her job as a waitress.

Of course, this all puts Sugihara under intense strain.  Until Sakurai comes on the scene, his only release came in the form of the boxing his father taught him as a kid, which comes in handy from time to time as bullies constantly try to test his skills.  However, when violence threatens to break out following the death of one of his Korean friends (and likely his only real friend) at the hands of a Japanese student, it further drives home Sugihara’s sense of disassociation and lostness.

Kubozuka is incredible to watch throughout the movie.  In the opening scene, Sugihara is in the middle of a basketball game when, tired of ceaseless taunts, he takes on both his teammates and their rivals singlehandedly.  And when Sugihara finally reveals his secret to Sakurai, it’s done in such a pained and honest manner that you can’t help but be concerned for this young man who is this close to going over the edge.  Kobuzuka never plays Sugihara in such a manner that he comes off as a mere bad-ass, a spiky-haired rebel without a clue.  He’s a fully three-dimensional character, and his struggles with identity and violence are entirely believable as a result.

Matching Kubozuka’s intensity and energy is that of director Isao Yukisada.  Working on a script by Kankurô Kudô (who also wrote Ping Pong), Yukisada fills Go‘s first half with all manner of seemingly MTV-inspired stylisms—crazy camera angles, driving music, hyperactive editing, and even a surreal flourish or two (in one scene, Sugihara runs so fast that he takes off into the sky).  However, the second half of the film settles into a much slower rhythm, and it’s here the movie’s depth really becomes apparent.  Characters grow more rounded, relationships are fleshed out, and it’s here that you really start believing in Sugihara and his plight.

Whereas the first half of the movie seems primarily designed to appeal to and attract high school students weaned on music videos, the second half makes a marked shift into melodrama.  So much so that when a shift occurs back towards the first half’s somewhat quirkier tone (Sugihara and his dad decide to settle their differences with a boxing match in the park, in a brightly-lit sandbox, with their cab driver serving as referee), it feels out of place.

I don’t pretend to know a lot about Japanese society.  However, the articles I have read often bring up the nation’s homogeneity, which obviously creates a very specific and strong sense of identity—nationally, culturally, and ethnically.  It doesn’t take a real stretch of the imagination to see how this could breed a certain amount of, shall we say, disdain—and perhaps even doubly so for “impostors” like Sugihara.

All around, Go (which has the distinction of being the first joint Japanese/South Korean production) makes for an entertaining and poignant look at this issue.  It never gets heavy-handed or didactic—when the issue is directly addressed, it feels completely natural thanks to Kobuzuka—nor does it simply pay them lip service and settle for being a hip, cool film.  Sugihara’s struggles feel wholly real and believable, which makes the film’s final scenes of reconciliation all the more rewarding and powerful.