Let my people Go!

Recently someone turned me on to a new game - new to me, I mean, it's a very old game called 'Go', which originated 3-4 thousand years ago in China.
  "You should try it," said my friend, "it's very Zen."
  "Zen is Chinese for 'bollocks'," I said.
  "It's one of the few games computers can't beat humans at," they pressed.
  "So is Twister," I said.
  "It's a great snob game," they said. "In the East people spend years learning the moves, and in the West only a few very cool people know about it."
  "Tell me more," I said.

The appeal to my vanity and desire to know secret stuff worked. So I did a search and found Mindy McAdams' excellent Go site, and I was hooked. Here are some of the things it says:

'The game has had ups and downs in China...Mao Zedong required his generals to study it, and the Cultural Revolution condemned it as a pastime of intellectuals. It was taken to Japan 1,200 to 1,400 years ago, reportedly by Buddhist priests who had visited China... Praised by the shogun Tokugawa, Go was studied by Japan's warrior class and eventually institutionalized in four "Go houses," where families developed and passed down Go techniques in the same way that other Japanese families developed and passed down techniques of sword-making or the samurai code...it spread to all levels of society and by the 18th century had attained a status equal to that of the famed tea ceremony...

'The game of Go is a vast territory for which the map will never be complete. Professionals, who study the game full-time under the tutelage of a master from childhood until their early twenties, play Go at its highest level. In ancient China, Go was one of the Four Arts, along with music, painting, and poetry, and in a professional game one can perceive the beauty of an art form. Even today, a young Go scholar moves into the home of his or her master, or sensei, to train for the professional tournament circuit.

'The design of a Go set is prescribed with a compelling simplicity dating back through centuries. The white stones, 180 in number, and the black, 181, must be round... a full-size Go board must have a grid of 19 horizontal and 19 vertical lines... two players use their respective stones to compete for territory on the surface of the board, staking out areas that they want to own, while the opponent tries to push and squeeze those areas in order to gain more territory for himself...Having jostled and poked and intruded, the stones at game's end touch one another's edges, illustrating the battles won and lost, forming a map of the contest of two minds.

'The Go board begins bare, like an empty canvas. The game begins to take form after 30 to 50 moves, when the board resembles an artist's pencil study prior to beginning a painting... One of the old names for Go translates as "hand conversation," and in fact a game is really a series of discussions and arguments about the choice of moves.

'This game's complexity rises from the huge number of possibilities for board positions (said to be 10 to the 750th power) and a wealth of recurring situations that can be learned only from repeated play... learning to play Go is something like learning to speak a foreign language. You can absorb enough in a few lessons to get along, but it will take years of study to become fluent.'

After reading this I knew I damn well had to learn this game, or at least learn enough to be able to fake it. I mean, how cool does that sound? This semi-mystic ancient oriental ritualistic clash of minds...taught by Buddhist priests and gnarled old sensei masters...years of monastic discipline to learn the moves...you practically have to go on a pilgrimage to Tibet to learn it. Learning Go might be the closest I can come to being one of those super-ascetic monk-types from Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. Hell, it might be the closest thing to becoming a Jedi Knight.

I think Go could make a great film, actually. A bit like The Karate Kid or Kung Fu or something.

'When will I be ready, Master?'

'Look into your heart, Grasshopper. Do you wish to learn The Game in order to serve The Game or for your own glory?'

'I dunno, what the hell, I figured, chicks, Nike endorsements...'

'Ah, Grasshopper, you have much to learn...'

But let's begin at the beginning. The hero would be played by Leonardo Di Caprio, or whatever hateful young studmuffin is hot when I get this greenlighted. Leo is a streetwise young hustler first discovered playing draughts on the pavement in Brooklyn or somewhere. He's talent-scouted for the international Go championships by a mysterious man in a black limo, played by Anthony Hopkins.

'Go?' says Leo, wandering sullenly around Hopkins' fancy apartment surreptitiously stealing things - at this point he thinks Hopkins probably wants to bum him. 'Sure, I've heard rumours about it. That's way out of my league, Mister. I'll never get higher than playing checkers with beercaps on streetcorners.'

But Anthony convinces him he can do it, offers to train him and finance him and everything. Why? It turns out Hopkins works for the CIA. 'You don't get it, do you kid? This isn't just a game. This is a tool of immense power. It is a gateway to the infinite. Whoever controls The Game controls the world.'

Hopkins sends Leo to study Go under the last American champion, Willem Dafoe. A Vietnam vet, he learned the game when forced to play at gunpoint by his Vietcong captors. Became a Bobby Fischer style maverick genius but retired at the height of his glory to live in an ashram in India. They track him down and Hopkins tries to bully him into teaching Leo. But Willem exists in a realm of pure Go now, devoting his days to a mystic contemplation of the abstract complexities of The Game. 'Your threats do not concern me...Your petty nationalistic rivalries are insignificant...' Hopkins tells him that his old Vietnamese torturer, played by Burt Kwouk from the Pink Panther films, is now working for the Iraqis and on course to become the world Go champion at the next grand tournament. If he does so, he will fulfill an ancient prophecy and ascend to dominion over the earth on a throne of blood. Dafoe couldn't give a damn. 'If The Game wills it, then so be it.' 'You know what?' says Leo. 'Fuck you! I'll do it on my own. Come on, Anthony, we're wasting our time here.' 'Wait a minute,' says Dafoe. 'I like your spunk, kid. You really want to learn?'

'More than anything,' says Leo.

'It will involve a long journey.'

'Yeah, well...I heard a journey begins with a single step.'

Dafoe smiles. 'That is where you are wrong. A single step IS the journey...'

The ex-champ teaches Leo all he can, but in order to ascend to the next level he has to go on a pilgrimage to a lammasery in Tibet to study under The Ultimate Grandmaster of Go (played by the Dalai Lama, or, if he isn't available, Jerry Lewis in oriental makeup). Leo treks alone into the Himalayas and ascends perilously to the roof of the world. In order to reach the monastery he must climb 144 steps carved into a vertiginous rockface over a sheer drop, on his knees and blindfolded. Before they will let him in, he must sit vigil before the entrance for seven days and seven nights, without food and drink and naked in the freezing snow. Finally, he enters and is led by a silent, mysterious child into a dark, echoing temple lit only by a single ruby lamp. A monk sits there smiling enigmatically, all the wisdom of the world accumulated in his wrinkled, peaceful, strangely beautiful face. Leo prostrates himself before him in instinctive reverence.

'What do you wish?' says the monk, his voice seeming like a whisper of wind echoing through a subterranean cavern.

'I wish to learn,' says Leo humbly. 'Teach me.'

'Teach you what?'

'Everything. I come as a humble petitioner. Teach me everything about the mysteries of Go.'

There is a long silence.

'Go?' says the monk thoughtfully. 'I know nothing of Go. This is where we induct people into the mysteries of Jenga. It's the third mountain on the left you want.'

Eventually Leo finds the right mountain. This time there is a ski-lift. He enters the monastery and enrols in Go classes with a side-course in origami.

He has to take a vow of celibacy, which doesn't trouble him much as he doesn't care to fuck any of the monks, but then sex rears its head in the form of fiery Latin temptress Jennifer Lopez. She has disguised herself as a monk, but her shapely figure and habit of crying, 'Hey, pendejo!' and making picturesque hand-gestures when annoyed give her away eventually. A feisty young woman, Lopez has penetrated the male-only cloister to learn Go in order to avenge the death of her father, the Mexican champion. Burt Kwouk killed him during a tournament by using the Death Move, a Go move so fiendishly complicated that contemplating all its ramifications causes cerebral overload in the victim. The Death Move is part of the Dark Side of Go the monks are reluctant to talk about - they save all the cool stuff like that for the end of the course to make sure everyone pays their tuition fees.

Di Caprio and Lopez fall in love, but the monks belatedly realize what the strange bumps in the front of her garment are - great scene when she tears it open defiantly and cries, 'Yes, these are breasts! Why should I be ashamed of them? Have you not seen breasts before? Look, look, nipples! Are they so shameful? Are they unnatural? Nipples, with which to feed a child, or tickle a man's ear until he goes crazy with desire! Do these stop me playing your stinking pebble game? Breasts, breasts, look at my breasts, you monks!' - and Leo must choose between Go and the woman he loves.

Not being a total retard, he deliberates for 0.2 seconds and chooses Jennifer. The pair of them leave the monastery before they are fully trained for the tournament. 'You are not ready, Shining Pebble,' the Grand Master warns (Shining Pebble is Leo's monk name. Jennifer's was Little Dragon With Strange Bumps.) 'If you face Burt Kwouk now, he will devour your mind.' 'You know what, fuck you,' says Leo, 'I'll do it on my own.' He doesn't even know The Death Move, although one of the younger monks has taught him the trick of faking an epileptic fit and sweeping all the counters away if a game is going badly.

All right. The big tournament now. Saigon, Burt Kwouk's old stomping ground. Willem Defoe's too. Willem and Anthony Hopkins are there to cheer Leo on - but they get kidnapped by mysterious baddies early on, and disappear completely. Leo breezes through the early rounds. Jennifer Lopez gets into the semi-finals too, partly by distracting her opponents by going into her, 'Breasts, breasts, look at my breasts!' routine every now and again. In the semis, Leo gets some withered old Japanese fart and Jennifer gets Burt Kwouk. 'You can't go up against him!' 'I have to, my father!' etc. Leo wins his match and goes to watch Jen playing Burt. It's going badly. She's losing. She does, 'Breasts, breasts, breasts,' but Burt doesn't bat an eyelid. In fact, he puts her off by pointing out that one of her nipples is inverted.

But then she remembers some advice her father gave her as a child - 'You must excel at everything you do or I will whip you with a belt and kill all your pets,' - and she starts to get the upper hand. It looks like she's going to win - but then Burt Kwouk hits her with the Death Move. 'Nooo!' says Leo as he realizes what's happening. He rushes to tear her away from the game - but it's too late, her mind is completely consumed by the infinitely complex ramifications of the move. 'Don't leave me baby, please don't leave me, oh Jesus God no.' She doesn't die, but she's in a trance-like state which might as well be death. Leo rocks her gently but she just dribbles on his shoulder. 'Leave her, Shining Pebble,' says the old Go Master. 'She has gone away from us now.' (The old Go Master swallowed his pride and came to support Leo after Anthony and Willem vanished. Great reconciliation scene - actually Leo went back to the lammasery and guilted him into it by yelling at him: 'I need you, you selfish old fuck! What's the matter with you? Are you afraid of life? What are you, yellow? Are you afraid to care, you fuck? Huh? Are you afraid to care?')

Okay. The eve of the big final between Leo and Burt. Leo gets a message from Anthony Hopkins: 'Meet me in the shady part of town at midnight.' Leo goes and gets kidnapped and ends up in a vast deserted warehouse or something. Burt Kwouk's amplified voice comes out of the darkness: 'I have rearranged the venue for the clash of our minds. Here is where we shall contend for mastery of the universe. I hope you do not mind if we play on my own board...Mneeyahahahahaa!...' The lights go up and Leo sees he's in a vast ampitheatre which is a giant Go board. The counters are huge boulders bigger than a man, which will be moved by cranes. Then he gets it - Anthony Hopkins and Willem Defoe are chained to the floor on key positions in the middle of the board! Not only does he have to win, he has to stop Burt dropping a counter on Anthony and Willem!

The game starts. Incredibly tense. Jesus, the tension! I envisage many people watching this is in a cinema will actually die of heart attacks at this point - at any rate, the usherettes could sneak round and smother some old and fat people at this point to start a good word of mouth. Leo manages to stop Burt putting a boulder on his friends, but the tactical strain is too much and Burt's overrunning him. Eventually it comes to a choice - the only way to block Burt's advance and save the game is for him to move one of his own counters onto Willem Dafoe. 'You know what you have to do, kid,' says Willem calmly, looking him in the eye. 'You have to kill me to win the game.' (Leo has come to love Willem during the months they trained together, by the way. He's like the father he never had. Actually he does have a father, but he's a big fat slob and he much prefers Willem.)

'No, no, I can't!' says Leo.

'Do it! Kill me! I have gone beyond life and death now! You have to stop him! Kill me! Squash me like a bug! Only The Game matters!'

'Kill me too, if you have to,' says Anthony Hopkins, less enthusiastically as he has not gone beyond life and death and has just bought a new car.

'Listen to me,' says Willem urgently, 'you know what's coming. Next turn he's going to hit you with The Death Move. You have to stop him. Kill me. Really, I'm up for it, come on, you big baby, squash-flat time, let's go.'

'There has to be another way!'

'Look within yourself, Shiny Pebble,' says the old Grand Master (he came too.)

'Kill me!' 'No!' Etc. So Leo makes a totally crap move rather than squash Willem or Antony, and the crane starts to whir as Burt sets in motion the Death Move. They're all buggered. But then suddenly, Jennifer Lopez comes running up to Leo! (They brought her with them too, still in her coma, and left her propped up against the wall in the corner.) She's out of her trance, and she says, 'I found it! I found the answer! I found the answer to the Death Move!' Sen-bloody-sation! She whispers the answer to him just as Burt's piece plops down, and Leo makes the counter-move and wins the game! Hooray!

So our heroes triumph and the world is saved, and the upshot is that Jennifer Lopez becomes the new Grand Master of the Go lammasery because she's the only one ever to find the riposte to the Death Move. The old Master teaches her all his secrets and in return she shows him her nipple-ear-frotting technique, which makes him happy. She vows to uphold the sacred traditions of the monastery, with a few minor changes, such as consecrating the place to the study of Twister. The old Master was retiring anyway, having decided he'd rather live somewhere warmer at his time of life. Hawaii, he rather thinks. 'I hope you'll come and visit me,' he says to Leo. 'Sure, some time, when I get a chance,' mumbles Leo. The Old Master smiles. 'What's the matter?' he says with a twinkle in his eye. 'Are afraid to care...you fuck?' 'Hey, you're learning!' says Leo delightedly, and gives him a high five.

'So we won, huh?' says Leo to Willem Dafoe.

'We won this game,' says Dafoe with a smile and a faraway look in his eye, 'but The Game... The Game always goes on...' And he shoulders his small pack of belongings, containing nothing but his Go board and a change of pants, and starts off through the white Himalayan vastness on the first steps of his long journey back to India, and ethereal music starts to play, beautiful and magnificent like the pristine peaks piercing the eternal heavens above him...

'As for me, I'm off to knock over a Latin American government,' says Anthony Hopkins cheerfully. 'But I may stop off in Bangkok for a full-body massage.'

But maybe the film should end with Willem.

Introduction to Go
British Go Association


20th Feb 2002