cast: Chow Yun-fat, Zhou Xun, and Li Yu
director: Mei Hu
120 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Showbox / Cine Asia
DVD Region 2
review by Jim Steel
Steven Seagal is… Jesus of Nazareth. Well, not quite – but Chow Yun-fat is Confucius. To be fair, he turns in a serviceable shift in this biopic which seems to have a higher-than-average number of comedy sidekicks for what is a straight, humourless recounting of the philosopher’s life. The problem in dealing with a quasi-religious icon is that you cannot take liberties with what little facts there are and characterisation is one of the inevitable casualties in a story that is two-and-a-half millennia old and, despite what the film implies, there is no way of knowing if the sayings and aphorisms attributed to Confucius are actually his.
The Iron Age had barely got underway and China was still a mass of warring nations. Interesting times, as they say. The framing of the film has an aged Confucius looking back on his life and his story starts with him becoming involved with the politics of his native Lu. He is very effective and succeeds in raising the status of Lu. This, of course, makes him many enemies and the powerful, neighbouring kingdom of Qi demands his exile. Thus begins his nomadic existence where, accompanied by his disciples, he moves from city-state to city-state spreading wisdom as he goes.
Unfortunately, given the near-permanent state of warfare, it is obvious that not many are listening. One who does is a royal consort, Nanzi (Zhou Xun), who flirts with him in a particularly clumsy scene to test his worth as a good man.
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It is not entirely clear how much of Chow’s embarrassment can be put down to acting. In the film’s defence it must be stated that much of the photography is beautiful and precise. The interiors are a particular delight and, if the film occasionally suffers from the attack of the CGI army it is not something that is dwelt on for much of the screen-time.
There remains one other major flaw and it will provoke snorts of derision among the more cynical. Poor Confucius occasionally has to spout words of political propaganda on behalf of the government of the People’s Republic of China. At one stage, for example, he quotes his own teacher and tells his followers to “Put your country ahead of your life”. This is compounded with a mountaintop flashback to Zichan that comes complete with pink fluffy clouds, but it’s no worse than some of the nonsense that Hollywood has flung at us over the years. Of course, this controversy spilled over into real life when the Chinese government pulled Avatar from the screens to make way for Confucius and were later forced into a climb-down.
There are a few bits that would have to be cut for the simile to work, particularly an early scene-setter where slaves are buried with their regal master, but otherwise this almost feels like a schools television programme. However, cutting a different half-an-hour’s worth of material would turn the film into something that is much more entertaining – particularly the flagging later scenes of wilderness poverty (just drink the bloody soup, somebody, so we can move on). As it is, the dead hand of propriety has stifled this endeavour.