The notion of a big budget all-star Confucius biopic is certainly an intriguing one, particularly since audience's interests were piqued last year with the lavish restoration of Fe Mu's 1940 lost masterpiece of the same name. Director Hu Mei here focuses his story on the latter part of the great philosopher and thinker's life, in particular the events leading up to his banishment by the Lu Kingdom, which set him on the road to spread his theories throughout Asia.
As the film opens, Confucius - or Kong Qiu (Chow Yun Fat) is a respected scholar stationed within the Kingdom of Lu, with a healthy following of young eager students. He has the ear of General Ji (Chen Jianbin) and early on his influence is displayed by successfully plea-bargaining for the life of a young burial slave. Kong Qiu is then able to successfully negotiate peaceful talks with the Lu's aggressive Qi neighbours and deter a planned ambush. However, Kong Qiu is eventually seen as a rival to the Lu leadership and despite his better judgement, General Ji is persuaded to banish the great man and his posse of like-minded scholars.
The production met with varying degrees of controversy in China, not least the objections that Hong Kong native Chow Yun Fat would turn the revered intellectual into some kind of kung-fu philosopher or that he would be incapable of effectively pulling off Kong Qiu's Mandarin vocal musings (a bizarre objection considering the many Mandarin language films Chow has already made and the Chinese film industry's over-reliance on post-production audio dubbing). Suffice to say that despite the numerous problems CONFUCIUS suffers from, Chow's performance isn't one of them.
He is a magnetic screen presence and brings a grounding sense of calm to his portrayal, confidently exuding Kong Qiu's intellectual gravitas, while giving the audience occasional peeks at a playful humanity beneath the robes and the beard. He certainly looks the part and recites Confucianism's greatest passages, championing benevolence and skilled judgement, with a suitably poetic eloquence. One criticism is that despite all this Kong Qiu remains frustratingly enigmatic. We learn little of what inspired him, what he was really like as a person or how he was fallible. Hu Mei clearly wants to be reverential and respectful in his portrayal and Chow brings warmth to the character, but the film does leave audiences frustrated of how little can be gleaned about the man behind the myth, save for some historical context.
This contextualising has been another source of criticism. The filmmakers, in their efforts to ensure the film stays entertaining, have relinquished a healthy amount of screen time to the Warring States, including a number of battle sequences in which our protagonist is notably absent. For the most part they use copious amounts of CGI, preventing cinematographer Peter Pau (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) from giving them an aesthetic step up that might have helped all round. Instead Pau is confined to working mostly with interiors and showing off the production's elegant costumes and sets, rather than anything more epic or grandiose.
Zhou Xun suffers most from the film's last minute restructuring. Clearly in response to opposition to suggestions Kong Qiu had a romantic liaison with High Consort of the Wei Kingdom, Nanzi (Zhou), her role now amounts to little more than about 10 minutes of screen time, proving almost entirely inconsequential, while still claiming second billing in the credits. But Nanzi is just one of many characters forced to jostle for screen time and despite numerous captions and formal introductions (occasionally for characters we have already met) it proves difficult to keep track of exactly who everybody is and how they are involved. The tone is also rather uneven, flipping between pounding war epic, contemplative meditation and occasionally coming close to comedy - not helped by Su Cong's often wildly inappropriate score. But CONFUCIUS does end strongly, with an exciting snowbound set piece, which admittedly may feel inappropriate but works rather well on its own, followed by a suitably sombre coda.
All in all CONFUCIUS does prove to be something of a mess, with an overwhelming feeling that it has been hacked at and reworked a number of times to please various cultural and governmental departments before finally escaping onto the screen. It is exciting, informative, tedious and baffling in roughly equal measure and is unlikely to stay with you for long afterwards. What the film does produce, however, is a stepping-stone to help Chow Yun Fat recover from the serious damage he has been doing to his career in recent years. In CONFUCIUS, he is understated yet quietly captivating, giving his reluctant admirers a little reminder of why he was once held in such high regard.
Cross published in bc Magazine (Hong Kong)