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Confucius (2010)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

CONFUCIUS (2010)

Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Zhou Xun, Chen Jian Bin, Lu Yi, Lao Yu, Ren Quan

Written By: Chan Khan, Jiang Qi Tao, He Yan, Hu Mei Directed By: Hu Mei

The Short Version

Chow Yun-Fat headlines a biopic of one of history’s greatest thinkers.

Just remember: never get your history from biopics.

Confucius is beautifully filmed and very well-acted.

Action is in the eye of the beholder.

A triumph for Chow Yun-Fat, and a majestic film for us: have a look at Confucius.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEDDAR.

Sliced and elegantly arranged.


Pairs Well With...

MEI JIU.

Chinese plum wine.  Not everyone understands it, but it is worth understanding all the same.

“Helping others is a measure of bravery.”


To much of the Western world, “Confucius” is a name synonymous with “wisdom,” even though most people don’t quite understand why.  To the Eastern world, however, Confucius is very well known indeed as one of the single greatest thinkers who ever lived.

First known in life as Kong Qui (or Kong Zi, depending on your brand of transliteration), he eventually came upon the honorific Kong Fu Tzu – “Master Kong” – from which the Westernized “Confucius” derives.  Though he did serve in several official capacities in government, his greatest legacy is as a teacher and ethicist whose moral code and framework for a civil society came to be the foundation for Chinese culture over the next two and a half thousand years.  From a historical perspective, calling him a giant among men is an understatement, and the idea that anyone could capture his essence in a two hour film seems laughable at best.

This is where I pause to remind you that if Oliver Stone taught us anything with JFK, it’s that no one should ever get his or her history from a biopic or a historical drama.  While there may be an essence or a kernel of truth to be found here and there, the real history is almost always someplace else.  As the character of Confucius himself notes toward the end of this film, those who wish to truly know and judge Confucius the man should read his books. 

With that said, there’s still quite a bit to be gained from the motion picture experience, especially in the case of a figure like Confucius who, after two and a half millennia, has become just as much if not more myth than man. 

Enter Chow Yun-Fat.

Though he first came to the attention of most Western audiences toting two guns for John Woo, the fact is that Chow Yun-Fat is a phenomenal actor who transcends the boundaries of genre.  It takes extraordinary poise and screen presence to play so great a figure as Confucius, and the pressure faced by anyone who might dare try is immense.  Chow Yun-Fat proves to be more than up to the challenge, earning instant credibility as the philosopher and ethicist from the moment that he first appears on the screen.  Before he even says a word (you are, of course, going to be watching this film in Chinese with subtitles; dubbing would just be wrong), he speaks volumes with his eyes, and his bearing is that of a man who truly could inspire a loyal following unto death.  Portraying the Master over the final two decades of his life, Chow Yun-Fat captures every aspect of Confucius as written: the thoughtful intellectual, the principled ethicist, the man weary of war and chaos, the proud teacher, the family man, and – deep within – the man who just wants to go home.  We can never know the true figure of the man who lived two and a half thousand years ago, but after spending two hours with Chow Yun-Fat, it is simple enough to imagine that one has gotten as close as one will ever get. 

Chow Yun-Fat puts his formidable talents to work in a film constructed by director Hu Mei with an eye toward presenting Confucius in the context of the chaotic world that surrounded him.  China was not unified during the time of Confucius; a multitude of states vied for power and advantage, creating what Confucius saw as an unharmonious, unjust chaos that was out of keeping with the will of Heaven.  The philosophy of ethics and social harmony that Confucius would develop was in many ways a direct response to this chaos he saw, and that is the point that the director and her team of writers have decided to make with their film, often at the cost of accuracy when it comes to the fine historical details.  But I think we’ve already touched on that issue: if you want accuracy, go read a book.  This is a past that borders on myth.  If it’s flavor that you’re after… one could do far worse than Confucius.

With that said, if you’re looking at the English language box art – which, if you’re reading this site, I’m guessing you are – don’t think that Confucius is quite the battle-oriented picture that the blurbs suggest.  Though there’s more than enough combat to offend some philosophy students, the fact is that outside of one (admittedly critical) moment in the film, battle is just a backdrop.  It informs Confucius, but it does not define him, and he steers away from it unless he has absolutely no other choice.  As such, it is not the action film that some Western audiences who have only read the box blurb might be expecting: if you’re looking for Jet Li’s Hero, you’re not going to find it here.  This has led some to call Confucius “dull” or “less-than-epic,” but to those people I say that action is in the eye of the beholder.

For me, the most powerfully played moment in the entire film occurs early on when Confucius engages in a debate about tradition and ethics before the ruling court.  Though the only weapons are words, they are delivered so sharply and filmed with such precision that it carries the strength of a full-on battle sequence.  No swords, no blood, no pyro; none of that is necessary to deliver the powerful punch.  This, I say, is an action scene.

So is the exceedingly polite duel of words between Confucius and Lady Nanzi (Zhou Xun, Cloud Atlas), which some with short attention spans might see as an excuse to grab a snack, but which the savvy viewer will see as a pivotal moment that defines both characters, affirms the wisdom of Confucius, and demonstrates the veracity of his view of the world.  Again, just words – not even sharply delivered this time – but an action scene all the same.

Call it elegant combat, if you must.

Speaking of elegance, Peter Pau’s cinematography is a wonder to behold.  He takes the world that was ancient China and makes it epic, whether he’s looking in on the simplicity of a humble family home or the elegance of a royal residence or the majestic expanse of the grand countryside. With few exceptions, Confucius is a visual feast, and that is that.   Yes, a small hit is taken on those occasions when rather obvious CGI is employed – usually during large scale battles – but those moments are few and far between, and easily forgiven by Pau’s otherwise outstanding work.  (Especially when one considers the comparatively miniscule budget with which this movie was made.)

And for the final touch, the music – something about which Confucius himself was very keen – is outstanding throughout, always providing just the right tone and atmosphere to complement whatever is going on in front of the camera.  From the overall score to the strummed tunes played by Confucius to the beautiful song that plays over the closing credits, nary a wrong note is ever struck.

Is Confucius accurate?  No; not by a true academic standard… but then again, how could anything be, when the subject is a man who lived two and a half millennia ago and who has since transcended into the realm of myth?  Does it provide a flavor, and perhaps a sense of the man it seeks to portray?  Yes, and it does so in a compelling manner for those who are willing to watch with an intellectually focused eye rather than one that’s easily distracted by pyro.  In the end, I think that’s the best outcome anyone could have any right to ask for, and that, in turn, makes Confucius a success in my book.

Bottom line, for those who enjoy epics driven more by intellect than by battles, Confucius is a fascinating and beautiful film to behold.  Though the historical details as presented can be called into question, the essence of the character cannot, and for that, actor Chow Yun-Fat and director Hu Mei deserve our attention and applause.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February 10, 2013

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