Although, in the West at least, the name Confucius is widely known, and indeed often misused, very few people are actually aware of either his teachings, or the events of the Great Sage’s life, which stretched from 551 to 479BC. With the trend for big budget Chinese costume epics continuing unabated, a Confucius film was perhaps inevitable, though thankfully the production had a steady hand at the helm in the form of 5th generation director Hu Mei, who had previously won praise for her acclaimed historical drama series “Yong Zheng Dynasty” and “The Emperor in Han Dynasty”. Perhaps more enticingly, the film also boasts the legendary Chow Yun Fat in the lead role, marking somewhat of a change for the actor, still best known for his iconic action roles in the likes of “A Better Tomorrow” and “The Killer”, and who of late has rather embarrassed himself in a handful of substandard Hollywood outings. Backing him in what could certainly be seen as a bid for thespian respectability is an impressive supporting cast which includes the lovely and talented Zhou Xun (recently in “The Message”), Lu Yi (“Seven Swords”), Ren Quan (“Assembly”), and Qiao Zhenyu (“The Book and the Sword”).
Although technically a biopic, “Confucius” actually focuses wholly on the later years of his life, beginning with him taking political office at 51 and following through to his death at the age of 73, taking place against the tumultuous history of China’s Warring States period. Known back then as Kong Qiu, the film opens in Lu, as he rises from Mayor of Zhongdu to the court’s Minister of Rituals after the kingdom’s ruler gives him the chance to put into practice his ideals of civility and decency. With the land under threat from its warlike Qi neighbours and troubled by internal strife from its three most prominent families, Kong Qiu finds his work cut out for him as he attempts to establish a new manner of harmonious governance. Sadly, although he achieves this to a point, he is eventually exiled, and takes to a life of great hardship wandering the land with his loyal disciples, spreading the word and refining his wisdom.
Given the distinct popcorn feel to many of the Chinese epics of recent years, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to find “Confucius” a relatively substantial affair, and one which is more concerned with historical accuracy and exploring its subject matter than with battle scenes and heaving bosoms. Indeed, whilst the idea of Chow Yun Fat as the Great Sage may conjure images of slow motion philosophising, beard stroking and robe twirling, the actor turns in what for him is a notably subdued, though quietly effective performance. This is true of the film as a whole, as although it inevitably does feature several “Red Cliff” influenced large scale action set pieces, these are wholly in keeping with the plot and the historical backdrop of the period. The film is structured around its subject, rather than manufactured drama or thrills, as perhaps indicated by Hu Mei’s decision to get right to the meat of the story by starting so late in his life, rather than churning out the kind of drawn out origin story which has been so popular of late.
Whilst this does mean that the film’s pace is a little variable and that it is occasionally somewhat dry, it gives it a grounded and respectable air, more so than if liberties had been taken in the name of entertainment. Although it is not to suggest that the film should be taken as a history lesson, it never patronises the viewer, and any foreknowledge of Confucius or his followers would certainly help to fill in some of the deliberate gaps and chronological leaps. A large amount of the running time is taken up with scenes of talking, thinking and a great deal of bowing, though it never feels dull, as the plot itself is quite fascinating, with a great deal of politics and scheming between the different states. These do tend to drive the film as much as Confucius’ own experiences, and the narrative is all the more interesting for providing a context for his life, depicting the momentous events in which he played a vital role.
Visually, the film is very impressive, thanks to some excellent work from Oscar-winning cinematographer Peter Pau (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), who really pulls out the stops, throwing in countless shots of epic panoramas and sweeping vistas. While some of these do suffer from rather obvious use of CGI enhancement, the film successfully recreates the historic period in convincing fashion, with the production values, costumes and sets all being impeccable. The only aspect which does distract from the dignity of the production is its overly bombastic soundtrack, which rises and swells quite alarmingly at times, needlessly undermining some of the more dramatic scenes.
This aside, the film’s only real flaw is in that despite her prominent position on the poster and DVD box, Zhou Xun appears for a criminally short period of time, and is given very little to do. Still, this is preferable to her role having been needlessly expanded, and although only touched upon briefly, the obvious tension between her character and Confucius is memorable and affecting.
Again, this shows Hu Mei’s dedication to bringing the Great Sage to the screen with dignity, and “Confucius” is a far better and more serious film than might have been expected. Although it may disappoint viewers looking for another grandiose action packed epic, it provides a fascinating and grounded take on the life of one of the most important figures in Chinese history, and manages to entertain without sacrificing its integrity.
Mei Hu (director)
CAST: Yun-Fat Chow … Confucius
Xun Zhou … Nan Zi
Lu Yao … Lu Jun