One of the bigger problems in “Zugzwang” is the intent behind the premise and concept. I was never sure if this short film was supposed to be a whimsically sweet tale of an underdog pursuing love, or a disturbing tale of a young boy out of touch with human dynamics who can’t take a hint. I found the ultimate resolution a bit uncomfortable and unsatisfying, but thankfully those caveats don’t bog down “Zugzwang,” completely. True it sounds like I’m down on the short film but despite its hazy intentions director Yolanda Centeno’s short film is charming and inventive.
Twins Ben and Sam Sasaki play Pedro the chess wizard who doesn’t just love the game of chess but operates life by its principles. His entire life revolves around playing the game and learning how to master the art of communication through its rules and famous moves. When he’s tasked with tutoring his school crush Ariadna, he begins figuring out how to tilt the scenario in his favor. Through a seemingly sentient chess clock, Pedro strategizes on how to appeal to her through body chemistry, and devising the proper words to speak to her to win her over. Director Centeno really makes the short film feel like something of a massive delusion where it’s interesting, but also quite perplexing.
Who is Pedro talking to? And is the clock a device to break the fourth wall, or an actual plot element that stops time? That said, I enjoyed how Pedro would at least try to figure out romance through his favorite game, and also realize that perhaps life isn’t about pieces and chess boards. The cast provide strong performances including the Sasako brothers, and Camille Guiffre. I also enjoyed director Centeno’s visual style and unique concept that re-thinks the under dog idea. “Zugzwang” is flawed, but it’s inventive and creative and I look forward to seeing more from director Yolanda Centeno in the future.