Usually, I love films that depict the peoples, places, and events from history. Granted, I prefer that films "do it right," don't exaggerate the importance of people and events because, when they do, I think those pictures rob the audience of experiencing, first-hand, those moments of discovery ... let's call them even `moments of appreciation' ... for what a person, place, or event meant to all of history. When you rob the viewer from reaching that conclusion on his own, one could make the case that the flick is little more than historical propaganda. What emerges is a stream of half-truths - all bloated to underscore the producer's particular obsession with what he believes is inspiring - and nothing about the central figure is genuinely "learned" in the process. All that is "learned" is what the producer or the writer or the maker wanted. What's lost - the true impact on history - is often far greater than what's gained.
All of this brings me to CONFUCIUS. History tells me that Confucius is one of China's most revered and beloved scholars. He's known for being a skilled orator, quick with a reflective phrase, mentally adept with a command of didactic language. He was a sought after by leaders to provide counsel on a whole host of matters, from military engagements to advice in private affairs of state. What emerges from this motion picture, however, is befuddling, at best.
According to the box art: "In this sweeping battlefield epic, Confucius finds his lands threatened by the fires of war. After leading the nation's most powerful army to victory against hordes of invaders, the new hero finds even greater danger in the jealous eyes of the aristocrats he fought to protect." Now, those two sentences make perfect sense when read; but, sadly, what emerges on film is a man who tricks their enemy into surrender, and then he's snubbed by those - the aristocrats - he helped pull the wool over the eyes of their mutual enemies. The rest of film presents Confucius's life as a wanderer from land to land, and, somehow through it all, he manages to maintain a loyal following, though I couldn't - for the life of me - tell you why.
In fact, Confucius utters few epic phrases in this epic picture ... about epicness. At best, he pulls off a few solid suggestions, maybe a witty implication or two, but nothing I'd print on a fortune cookie. I say this not meaning for any of it to sound disrespectful or insulting, certainly not to any of the Chinese people, but I have to believe Confucius did far more good than what gets screen time in this two-plus-hour "epic." As usual, I've done some reading, and while I've read a far amount of praise for Chow Yun-Fat in the titular role, I have to admit some shock in saying I just don't see it. Chow Yun-Fat has always seemed far more at home with a blazing .45 in his hands. Here? I think his talents are wasted, though he did receive a nominee for `Best Actor' in the Hong Kong Film Awards.
It all looks very impressive, though. Peter Pau - the cinematographer for CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON - makes it all look wonderful, and the special effects for what few battlefield sequences are shown here (there's essentially very, very little warfare because Confucius's strengths were avoiding it) are, indeed, wonderful. It's just all told with an overemphasis on maintaining a timeline; the people are completely and utterly lost - and devoid of any luster - within the frame.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the only person plucked from history and put up on the screen who appears even remotely legitimate (or real) is actress Xun Zhou. She plays a royal consort, Nan Zi, who apparently secretly loves (or admires?) the teachings of Confucius, though the film provides no essential backstory as to why. Also, her role here is very brief - it's hard to even justify it as a cameo, she's given so little to do - but the actress actually breathes life into her scant scenes in a way any talent should in a biopic. Everything else here is drily academic ... and not in the good drily academic way.
CONFUCIUS's greatest failure is that it's progressively frustrating. I'll try to explain that, though I'll admit this may be a bit difficult as the experience was more than a bit confusing.
The picture begins with a series of character introductions - seemingly every person and period involved requires a specific subtitle introducing or highlighting the importance to back to Confucius's timeline - and the narrative device simply never lets up, implying that the viewer might be loss without this service provided by the filmmakers. Then, the film unfolds as if requiring this ongoing familiarity with all of Confucius's entire life. It's almost as if the script were written only with "fans of Confucius" in mind, entreating the viewer to marvel, "Oh, yeah, this is the moment when Confucius first said ____" and "that's the first time Confucius said ____." (Confucius fans can fill in the blank.) Biopics aren't always this force-fed to an audience. At least, many of them I've seen haven't used this narrative device. I can't help but wonder if the screenplay required a few more drafts OR were the producers pressed for time and simply decided to go with what required the least participation on the part of only an informed audience. Having known absolutely nothing about the life of Confucius, I can say that, after viewing the film, I'm not inclined in the slightest to want to run out and read more.
In fact, how can a film detailing the life of one of China's greatest thinkers, speakers, educators, be so flat, dimensionless, and uninteresting?
RECOMMENDED with strong reservation: certainly not for everyone, but it's worth a single view, if even for its prettiness.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Funimation provided me with a DVD screener for the expressed purposes of writing this review.