On the surface, the story feels too ripe for telling.
New York City, Union Square Park, a veteran chess player who, we assume, has a life story that will just blow us away. Who hasn't stood watching these men, wondering about the life decisions that brought them to play chess with unsuspecting gullible tourists, how they live, what they eat, where they sleep, what they can teach us about America, about the human experience. All of which sounds like perfect art school fare, the perfect sad and almost inherently maudlin tale that would allow you someone to connect the dots, add dashes of artistic flair, and viola! a perfect though sterile movie.
Yet, somehow, in this deceptively short yet powerful documentary, Odysseus' Gambit, instead of taking the easy, simple way through the narrative, the stories dances on its own to show us the depths of one personality. Saravuth Inn, a chess master of Union Square Park, sits down everyday with his cigarettes and tries to make enough money playing chess with tourists. Alex Lora, the director, focuses his lens on Inn and the bustling noises of NYC. The movie crafts a slow burning story that unfolds with subtlety that allows the story to breathe, to tell itself, without commentary or a moralizing streak. Inn, we see, is sometimes jovial, other times cranky multi-talented man. He is at turns funny, perceptive, ornery, self-pitying, and sometimes just downright angry. He knows that to take money to play chess is not really a job, but a sort of act to ask for money to subsist and so sometimes he plays the part, other times he shatters the illusion necessary for charity. The conversation turns uncomfortable, or too intimate at turns, when the details of this man's harrowing life emerges. A infancy of genocide in Cambodia, American goodwill turned sour, a precocious childhood in exile, no healthcare, increasing medical issues, poverty and the list goes on.
The camera adds much to the subtlety here. Instead of trying to craft a cohesive and coherent narrative, the camera cuts quickly between shots, and focuses on the strange and beautiful details of NYC: a cemetery of cigarettes, the symphonies of subway sounds, the jargon of the park residents. At each moment you expect some money shot, some life lesson, the camera cuts away, as if to tease us and expose our expectations as superficial. Framing the story is the chess player's explanations of how he plays chess, his craft. This makes the story about something more than sadness, an in this diversion, in its explicit mold as a symbol for life, the movie navigates between the compelling story of loving chess and the harshness of an arbitrary life. What emerges from the story is nothing less than the story of a full human life, without the need to create an easy pat narrative that ties it all together. Kudos.
Watch the movie here. (Scroll down past the trailer and list of awards.)