Confucius or Kong Zi (Chow Yun Fat) is a Chinese philosopher who is married to Qi Quan (Zhang Kai Li) and the couple have two children: daughter Kong Rao (Chen Rui) and son Kong Li (Qiao Zhen Yu). At the age of 53 years old he is a respected scholar working in the Lu Kingdom with many students. He becomes an advisor for General Ji (Chen Jian Bin), who later betrays him, leaving Kong Zi to resign from his post and travel around China to promote his own philosophy.
SYDNEY CHINESE FILM FESTIVAL: As Confucius has been an inspirational figure to millions of people for aeons—roughly 2,500 years—it’s about time a filmmaker did justice to the philosopher’s remarkable life and legacy.
Alas, director Hu Mei’s biopic Confucius takes an overly-reverent approach to its subject, neglects his early life, barely acknowledges his wife and children and fails to make emotional connections or deliver more than a few moments of genuine drama.
Chow Yun-fat brings his considerable charisma and guile to the lead role but working within the limitations of the screenplay by Chan Khan, He Yanjiang and Jiang Qitao Hu, he remains a detached, impassive figure for much of the movie.
It’s easy to see why China Film Group stumped up the film’s $US22 million budget partly as a not-so-subtle propaganda exercise, using the venerable Confucius to reaffirm traditional Chinese values such as family, honesty, integrity and loyalty.
Were he alive today, he’d probably be shocked that the 'corruption and theft’ which he decried are still rampant in China and elsewhere, and dismayed that his entreaties to observe 'harmony and civility in government’ and to avoid 'undue haste’ in politics have gone unheeded.
Released in China in January 2010, the film caused a flap after the government yanked Avatar off screens to make way for the home-grown epic, and it performed modestly at the box-office.
The starting point is the end of the so-called Spring and Autumn Period when China is controlled by princes and Confucius, a commoner aged in his 50s then known as Kong Qiu, is promoted from mayor to minister of law in the kingdom of Lu. He shows his humanity by giving refuge to a boy who was destined to be buried alive with his master and persuading the king to abolish that barbaric
After brokering peace with a rival kingdom and regaining three cities lost during a previous war without using force, he’s elevated to acting minister of the interior. He leads Lu's troops against those of the kingdom of Qi, a spectacular encounter in a large ravine. However, after he attempts to unite three of the biggest families in the kingdom by demolishing the walls that separate their cities, he’s forced into exile with his disciples, abandoning his wife and children.
There follows a long period in the wilderness as he and his followers endure hardship and starvation. Apart from several expertly-staged battle scenes that are superbly photographed by cinematographer Peter Pau, only in the latter stages does the film develop dramatic momentum and a degree of pathos.
Chow effectively conveys his character’s humility, bravery, sagacity, cunning as a politician and military strategist, stoicism in exile, and his willingness to reject temptations of the flesh, as when the king of Wei’s sexy consort Nanzi (Zhou Xun) comes on to him.
But we learn almost nothing of Confucius’ formative years except that he was the son of a warrior. And Chow is required to spend too much time in a sedentary position spouting teachings and sayings such as 'Rotten wood is hard to carve," 'Put your country ahead of your life," 'Helping others is a measure of bravery," and 'A man of high principle must be willing to die by his word."
And one scene in which he seeks advice from his mentor Laozi atop a fog-shrouded mountain is both pretentious and phoney.