He may be dubbed, but Chow Yun-Fat brings strong, charismatic presence to the title role in Confucius. However, the passion that best serves the actor is rarely given display, as director Hu Mei chooses to tell Confucius' tale in an overly reverent and unimaginative manner. Framed as a dying memory by the aged Kong Qiu (Confucius' real name), the film depicts two key periods in his life: his time as a politician in the State of Lu, and the subsequent 14-year period when he and his disciples traveled the land to offer education to the unwashed masses (read: upper class snobs). During this first portion, high-handed doubletalk and backroom political machinations make up the majority of the tension. Confucius is portrayed as a principled and righteous man who challenges against the corruption and cruelty rampant in government. Unsurprisingly, those in power want him gone.
Maybe. The relationships are convoluted and tricky, with some clear villains and some also stuck on the fence. Clan leader Chi Shun (Chen Jianbin) plays both ally and enemy to Confucius, inscrutably plotting against him while also seeming to genuinely value his character and initiatives – that is, when they don't conflict with his own. Throughout these political tensions, we learn about Confucius' life, his values of benevolence and moral thought, and his relationships with his family and admiring students. This first part of the film is effective if a bit talky, and adequately sets up the character's eventual fall from grace. Ultimately, Confucius realizes that he's not able to swim with the sharks, and sends himself into self-exile when his political life comes falling down. He abruptly leaves his family and home, turning to the road with only his disciples giving him support.
Then, not much happens. During Confucius' 14-year trek through China, he experiences some hard, disappointing years. Food and shelter are sometimes scarce, he's unappreciated and shunned by some Chinese, tempted by one king's smart and somewhat slutty consort (Zhou Xun, in a terrific and all-too-brief turn), and experiences the loss of many of his disciples. There's much history in these events, with certain disciples (like Li Wen-Bo's commanding Zilu) fulfilling their places in history dramatically. Other characters, like Confucius' never-aging pet pupil Yan Hui (Ren Quan), meet less credible fates, though at least the moments are amped with the sort of narrative license you'd expect from an epic film that has some stake in nationalist pride. Extra drama is always a plus for a big budget biopic.
However, despite the drama and history on display, nearly all the events depicted in the second half of the film hit the same thematic note. Confucius has an apparent three-act structure, but it's time that seems to signal the start and end of each act, rather than events or characters. Confucius starts a noble, genuine man and ends a noble, genuine man, and his weaknesses and self-doubt rarely impact the story. There's room for drama and tension within his character; during the single scene between Confucius and Zhou Xun's Nan Zi, it's implied that Confucius' wisdom comes with a difficult price, and one which he's all too aware of within Nan Zi's alluring presence. Basically, he denies his own personal gratification, but he's apparently done such a good job of it that zero tension exists within his character. Confucius is compelling as an iconic historical figure, but as a man? Not really.
Without a suitable character arc to involve audiences, Confucius leans heavily on its production values and obvious cultural significance. Aside from some dodgy visual effects, this is a fine-looking production, with cinematographer Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and costumer Yee Chung-Man (of too many great-looking films to count) doing their usual strong work. Culturally, the film is notable since Confucius and his teachings came under attack during the Cultural Revolution. The only other film about Confucius is a 1940 silent film, and the very fact that this new version has been produced is some cause for celebration. That may also be the reason that the film is so pedestrian in its aims, because it's simply happy to be what it is - a film about Confucius, with his well-known pearls of wisdom regularly trotted out to impress the initiated. For audiences with a working or culturally-gained knowledge of Confucius, the film has its positives.
For everyone else? Not a whole lot, unfortunately. Confucius may introduce Confucius and his teachings to a broader audience but it's doubtful if it'll create further interest. There's much in Confucius' ethical thinking that could apply to current times, but the film doesn't capitalize on this, eschewing any political subtext or modern parallels, and instead reducing Confucius' principles to soundbites packaged for audiences who already know what he's all about. That's probably the greatest failure of Confucius - that it doesn't find a way to make the subject more compelling to a modern audience unfamiliar with the man and his legacy. A stronger, more dynamic film could have helped educate or perhaps even inspire audiences - and frankly speaking, the modern moviegoing audience could use all the education or inspiration they can get. As it is, all we have is a respectable, well-meaning but forgettable biopic with a dubbed Chow Yun-Fat barely stretching his acting muscles at all. Confucius deserves better than Confucius. (Kozo, 2010)
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