In Mandarin with English and Chinese Subtitles
Director: Hu Mei
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Zhou Xun, Lu Yi, Chen Jianbin,
Ren Quan, Wang Ban, Zhang Kaili, Jiao Huang
RunTime: 2 hrs 5 mins
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films
Rating: PG (Some Violence)
Opening Day: 18 March 2010
life story of the highly-influential Chinese philosopher,
It speaks much of a man when his name is still mentioned as one of the greatest philosophers in Chinese history after more than 2,500 years- but such is the influence of Confucius. Admittedly though, most, if not all, of what we know about Confucius derives from his teachings, or his words of wisdom- indeed, we know little of the life of Confucius and more interestingly, the source of his insight.
Hu Mei’s “Confucius” is therefore highly anticipated, since there hasn’t been a single biopic of the man as far as this reviewer can recall. But the anticipation is even greater knowing that Chow Yun-Fat is in the lead role, the charismatic Hong Kong actor’s big screen appearances of late have been few and far between (his last Chinese film was Zhang Yimou’s period drama “Curse of the Golden Flower”). It is with regret that this reviewer says that “Confucius” ultimately comes up short on many counts.
The movie begins with a middle-aged Confucius in the northern kingdom of Lu where he has just been made the Minister of Law by the King. Apparently, Confucius’ teachings have had a powerful influence on the people in his district- crime rates are low and people are content- and the King wants him to spread his word to others in the kingdom. Wise as they may be, his thinking was ahead of his time, so when he disregards the traditional practice of burying servants with their dead masters and adopts one such runaway boy, he unwittingly makes enemies with the other government officials.
Ever the man of ideals, Confucius soon proves an ill match for the game of politics and the first half of the movie culminates in his exile from Lu. This half is also the better part of the movie, for director Hu Mei establishes a brisk pace throughout and gets her audience’s sympathies right where they belong- with Confucius. Like all great thinkers, Confucius was a revolutionary whose strict principles placed him squarely at odds with those around him.
Once banished, Confucius travelled from state to state for close to 14 years with his group of dutiful followers who refused to leave him. Food and water were scarce, and not all of the kingdoms he arrived offered him and his followers hospitality, given their alliance with Lu. One of those who did, the Wei kingdom for instance, did so under false pretense- on her first meeting with Confucius, the queen (Zhou Xun in a brief scene-stealing role) tries to seduce Confucius with her natural allure she is all too aware of.
As Confucius wanders, the film wanders with little purpose or direction. Besides emphasising the hardships that Confucius and his disciples endured and their tenacity at weathering these years of exile, “Confucius” doesn’t say more about its subject. Surely a man who inspired his disciples so must have been more than just a man who spoke with wisdom? But no, Hu Mei believes that her audience reveres her character as much as she does, opting to regurgitate Confucius’ famous sayings rather than demonstrating the example that Confucius’ life must have been to his followers.
And there are many- among them Zilu, Yan Hui and Ran Qiu-
so many in fact that Hu Mei identifies them by name onscreen
each time they appear. Of course, they are not the focus of
the movie, and rightly so- but “Confucius” is
equally fuzzy about who it should be about as well. This is
despite Chow Yun-Fat’s commanding screen presence, perhaps
his meatiest role of late since his ill-advised career move
to Hollywood. Never mind its intentions, but this biopic of
the legendary philosopher, sage and strategist is hardly as
multifaceted and complex as its subject- in fact, it turns
out to be no more than another unspectacular addition to the
plethora of Chinese period epics a la “Mulan”
and “Red Cliff.
Yun-Fat gives a commanding performance as the legendary philosopher,
but is let down by this unremarkable portrait of a remarkable
Review by Gabriel Chong