The last time a movie was made about the story of Confucius was in 1940 in a silent film. This 2010 film, that has Chow Yun Fat in the lead role as “Confucius” is a reason to celebrate. The film is directed by Hu Mei and while the movie is flawed with several missed opportunities, but nonetheless, the film has great production values and a great cast (even has the beauteous Zhou Xun with an appearance that may be brief but made a lot of impact) and the words of wisdom by the legendary historic figure are occasionally quoted to leave an impression on the uninitiated. Talk about national pride and “Confucius” has all the elements to satisfy.
Back during the time when the three royal families ruled the land with little chances of unity, clan leader Chi Shun (Chen Jianbin) values the friendship and beliefs of Kong Qiu (Confucius’ real name) as long as it suits his purposes. Kong has been a worthy ally as he had accomplished several feats without bloodshed but through his brilliant maneuvering of politics and military tactics. But when politics prove to be too testing for his values of benevolence and morality, he is forced into self-exile. He eventually ends up leaving his family and home with nothing but his faithful disciples to lend him support.
The film portrays two key elements in the life of Kong Qiu (Chow Yun Fat); his life as a minister in the political arena in his homeland and his 14-year travels when he traveled all over China with his disciples to offer education to the masses. The film brings his experiences as a man of honor and principle who challenges the corruption that runs deep in the government, and anyone who does so would be asked to leave. After that, we see his trek all over the wilderness with his disciples, that he experiences some truly testing years. I am not sure, I liked the parts where we see his problems, their search for food and the way he is revered by his followers; but there was just something missing.
The first half of the film is full of dialogue as we are presented the political situation during this period. I know there is just so much history to cover in a 2-hour film, and it shows that some parts of the direction felt rather episodic. I did enjoy the fact that we get to know his disciples and those who held historical significance (Li commanding the army of Zilu) as well as those who meet a less than pleasant fate as Hui Yan (played by Quan Ren). This is a supposed biopic that exudes national pride so the drama in the film is pretty much a given practice. There are some brief scenes of spectacle as we become privy to some of the bloodiest battles in Chinese history. The scenes looked real good, I was impressed with the film’s set designs and costumes; they looked quite suited for the period it depicts. The cinematography was laid out by Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and the costumes prove to be two of the film’s main strengths.
I guess the missing part of the movie is the fact that I wanted to get to know Confucius as a man as well as the legendary historical figure. The details of his life felt like a mere imprint. I guess while I liked the idea of Confucius beginning as a righteous man and ending as a righteous man, I wanted to feel his character more from the ‘human’ point of view. An example would be when the scene that his human frailties could’ve been brought to exposition as he met with the dangerously seductive Nan Zi (Zhou Xun, Painted Skin) as we see that he is obviously taken by her beauty but denies his own personal delight. This would be an exercise that his intelligence comes at a price, and the tension was seen. I guess I wanted to see more of Confucius more human side; the film portrays him as a man of significant iconic status, but I never got to see Confucius as a real man.
I guess I shouldn’t really complain even if the direction fails on several bits of compelling characterization since the direction opts to rely on Fat’s star power, the great production values and the cultural importance. The film does feel very pleased with itself and for the western audience who’d like to have a little knowledge of Confucius’ life, then the movie does have its strong points. Chow Yun Fat may be dubbed in the film, but the actor is one helluva performer, as he manages to give a lot of emotion to his role despite the weaknesses of the script. The film can be commended as it does give a ‘feel pride’ type of emotion and proves significant since Confucius’ teachings came under scrutiny during the cultural revolution.
I guess “Confucius” is one of those Hong Kong films geared for a more international audience who want an introduction to the life of the historical figure named as the ‘father of education‘. It feels a little empty for those with the knowledge of Eastern history and the film doesn’t capitalize on the potential applications of his teachings in today’s current times. The film sidesteps any parallels in today’s political arena, applies his quotes as mere dramatic devices and simply enforces the idea of Confucius that most people already know anyway. The film fails to inspire and never presents the more compelling side of the life and the legacy of Confucius; the worldwide movie-going public needed a more detailed education about the man. It should have been a more dynamic film, a more awesome movie; and while “Confucius” is a upright presentation, it never hits a homerun.
Timid Recommendation [3 Out of 5 Stars]
HYPE LEVEL: Very High in Asia and Europe as it marks Chow Yun Fat's return to Chinese epics while portraying a significant historical figure.