China/Japan, 2012, colour, 16:9, 99 mins.
Director: Jiang Qinmin 蒋钦民 .
Light drama of a Chinese go player in Japan packs a lot into a little.
Tokyo, the present day, spring. Jiliu (Qin Hao), a talented amateur go player, has recently arrived from China in Japan, where his name translates as Yoshiryu. One day in the street he bumps into an old vegetable-seller from Chiba, Mrs. Igarashi (Baisho Chieko), who’s also a go devotee. She takes a liking to him and helps him get a job as a cleaner at a capsule hotel. Jiliu gets to know her grandson, Shoichi (Nakaizumi Hideo), whose petty criminal lifestyle she disapproves of. One night, Shoichi takes refuge in Jiliu’s flat after being wounded defending his girlfriend Nanako (Zhang Junning), a Chinese hairdresser from Taiwan, against some gangsters, one of whom he’s accidentally killed. Mrs. Igarashi sends some money to Shoichi via Jiliu, who takes care of Shoichi with the help of Naito Mika (Tian Yuan), the capsule hotel’s receptionist who likes him. Nanako tells Jiliu she doesn’t want to see Shoichi any more and that Shoichi should leave the country for his own safety. Jiliu manages to re-unite Shoichi with his grandmother and then enrols in the trials for the annual amateur Kanto Area Go Tournament. However, his progress runs into an unforeseen hitch.
Written and directed by a Mainland Chinese, but utterly Japanese in look and feel, Tokyo Newcomer 初到东京 is an engaging light drama centred on a young Chinese guy’s passion for the boardgame of go 围棋 | 囲碁 and his assimilation into the country which has made the (Chinese-invented) game into a national expression of its mindset. Though there’s a fair amount of playing in the movie, it’s not necessary to understand the game, which is portrayed as just another example of Japanese self-discipline that the central character, Jiliu, admires – and which is made light fun of in early scenes. As a “go movie”, Newcomer has none of the dry asceticism of, say, the beautifully shot but emotionally remote The Go Master 吴清源 (2006), directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang 田壮壮.
Hunan-born Jiang Qinmin 蒋钦民 is one of a very small number of Mainland filmmakers (including Zhang Jiabei 张加贝, known for Cherries 樱桃, 2007, and Dreaming Wall 梦墙, 2010) who’s studied in Japan, where his early movie, rural love drama Sky Lovers 天上的恋人 (2002), was a success. Tokyo Newcomer is his third movie, after The Sunflower Disaster 葵花劫 (2001) and Pure Love 纯爱 (2007), to feature Japanese content, though he’s also capable of making everything from Chinese TV dramas to a smooth contemporary rom-com like the highly enjoyable My Airhostess Roommate 恋爱前规则 (2009). Though hardly commercial fare, Newcomer is his most mature and tightly controlled film to date, naturally assuming a Japanese look and identity, and packing a whole universe of feeling into a simple story via a series of small, affecting scenes.
As Jiliu, Qin Hao 秦昊 gives a more likeable and accessible performance than in previous movies like Spring Fever 春风沉醉的夜晚 (2009) and Chongqing Blues 日照重庆 (2010), though his character is thinly backgrounded. Dominating the film, not surprisingly, is 71-year-old Japanese actress-singer Baisho Chieko 倍赏千惠子 – a favourite of director Yamada Yoji 山田洋次 – as the quietly independent, widowed vegetable-seller who takes Jiliu under her wing and teaches him the real meaning of go from a Japanese perspective. It’s a performance that grows in stature and depth as the movie progresses to a warm and dignified end.
Playing her wayward grandson, Nakaizumi Hideo 中泉英雄 (the conflicted Japanese soldier in City of Life and Death 南京！南京！, 2009) becomes more sympathetic as the story unfolds, while two Chinese actresses, Taiwan’s Zhang Junning 张钧甯 (Zoom Hunting 猎艳, 2010) and Mainlander Tian Yuan 田原 (Luxury Car 江城夏日, 2006), are okay in sketchily drawn supporting roles. The clean and immaculate camerawork by d.p. Kugimiya Shinji 钉宫慎治 is miles from his more generic work like Tears of Kitty 子猫の涙 (2008) and vampire movie Higanjima 彼岸島 (2009), while the busy, fret-heavy score by Japanese-born Huang Yongcan 黃永灿 [Wong Wing-tsan] and Wong Mineshi ウォン美音志 is an offbeat, atmospheric delight.
Presented by Top Fun Entertainment (CN), Beijing New Performance Film (CN), Wilco (JP), Huaxia Film Distribution (CN). Produced by Top Fun Entertainment (CN).
Script: Jiang Qinmin. Photography: Kugimiya Shinji. Music: Huang Yongcan [Wong Wing-tsan], Wong Mineshi. Art direction: Isomi Toshihiro. Costume design: Kurosawa Kazuko. Sound: Okamoto Tatehiro.
Cast: Qin Hao (Jiliu/Yoshiryu), Nakaizumi Hideo (Igarashi Shoichi), Zhang Junning (Nanako), Baisho Chieko (Mrs. Igarashi), Tian Yuan (Naito Mika, hotel receptionist), Kubozuka Shunsuke (Natori Hideki, go champion), Kazama Toru (go tournament official), Nakamura Aya (Tanaka Sayuri), Saito Noriko (TV personality), Senba Kazuyuki (Mr. Natori), Saito Yosuke (Taniyama Yasuo), Namiki Shiro (hotel manager), Koichi Mantaro (Umaru Shinichi).
Premiere: Osaka Asian Film Festival (Surprise Screening), 15 Mar 2012.
Release: China, 23 Mar 2012; Japan, 9 Nov 2013.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 19 May 2012.)