“You should rely on yourself not on others. Success comes from your own efforts” a father tells his son, yet his words have a particular irony given the complicated nature of their relationship. Pu Yunhong’s mostly observational documentary Go Through the Dark (盲弈, máng yì) follows an 11-year-old boy who unwittingly became a social media star after winning a regional Go contest despite the fact that he is blind. At first Guanglin’s father seems supportive and caring, yet the boy often appears to be on the brink of tears and is near silent giving no real indication whether or not he actually likes the game of Go or is only doing it to please the father who has told him he has no other future solely because of his blindness.
In any case, Guanglin has already achieved level four status after only two years and at a relatively young age even for a sighted child who devoted themselves solely to studying the game. Using a specially adapted board that allows him to play by touch, he seems genuinely heartbroken on losing out in the final match of a tournament, crying into his father’s shirt, but later events lead us to wonder if it’s merely disappointment that has him so upset or guilt mixed with fear in being unable to live up to his father’s expectations. It seems that Guanglin’s father has decided that his future lies in becoming a professional Go player, explaining that he had previously considered sending him away to train as a masseur expressing a rather outdated and prejudicial view of blindness in insisting there are no other possibilities for him, but there is an ongoing conflict of interest that sees him attempt to micromanage the boy’s affairs as if making a bid for vicarious success rather than earnestly supporting his son in order to see him fulfil his dreams.
He first explains that they were offered a place at a Go school in Beijing but then that the school messed them around, accusing them of exploiting Guanglin to boost their image while having no real intention of helping him. Then they travel south to Xiamen following an offer from Mrs Wang who provides them with an apartment and offers to train Guanglin for free. But it’s still not enough for his father who complains endlessly that he feels ripped off and exploited, irritated by Mrs Wang’s suggestion he help out at the school while she seems to have some concerns about their potentially toxic co-dependency. Though his father is always pointing out that Guanglin will have to become independent someday, he takes frequent steps to prevent him doing so. Apparently suffering from severe separation anxiety, Guanglin does not attend school and is getting no conventional education nor does he have the opportunity to mix with other children of his own age and has poor social skills. Mrs Wang is concerned that he never chooses his own food to eat but accepts only what his father gives him, while there is something worrying in his tendency to simply eat a few bites and declare himself full with his father then finishing off his meal.
The cause of Guanglin’s blindness, according to his father, is malnutrition caused by their poverty though Mrs Wang in particular is convinced that he may never have attempted to get proper medical care for his son. When she tries to encourage him to take Guanglin to a specialist who suggests that it might be possible for him to regain at least some of his sight, his father becomes indignant. His anxiety may be born of a genuine fear that surgery may make things worse or cause additional injury because of the affects of the anaesthetic but behind it all there’s the uncomfortable suggestion that he simply doesn’t want Guanglin to be cured because that would reduce his dependency on him while rendering him “ordinary”, no longer the blind Go player with no guarantee that he can learn to play the game the way that others play it.
Even when his father puts him in a school in Beijing, the coach seems to agree with him that it would be “better” if Guanglin could delay the treatment on his eyes so the school would have the cachet of training the blind Go champion. Yet when he had put him in a school in his hometown, the coach there had humiliated Guanglin in front of the whole class calling his moves “cabbage-headed” and unacceptable for someone at his level. “No one wants to play with a loser” his father cruelly tells him, as Guanglin wanders around on his own rejected by the other kids who are mostly reading or playing video games yet often appearing at his most happy running around and standing behind his classmates listening to them play even when not included. Though often withdrawn, stressed and close to tears, Guanglin does his best without complaint while his father runs him down and rants about people not supporting their dream. It may be that pretty much everyone is exploiting Guanglin in one way or another, no one really thinking about his quality of life or future independence, but he is left with nowhere else to turn and only Go to cling to as an uncertain lifeline towards a better future.
Go Through the Dark screens on 21st October as part of Cambridge Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)