I realise that in the West, there is a limit to how much world history we can be taught. School years cover all the bases, but normally - and understandably - focus on the exploits of the US or UK or 'the West' in general. The East remains something of an unexplored territory, which is a shame really when you consider that its legacy predates much of what we know. Ancient China represents one of the earliest centres of human civilisation. Over 4 millennia ago, it was governed by various Dynasties using a feudal system, and unification did not begin until after the 'Spring and Autumn Period' ended in 476BC. During this period the patchwork quilt of warring kingdoms and states were constantly feuding amidst themselves, attempting to gain territory and each prove themselves superior over their neighbours.
Kong Qiu was born in 551BC into a warrior family, although his father died when he was a child, and his mother fled their fiefdom to avoid execution, so he grew up in poverty. Diligent in his studies, he proved himself to be an acclaimed scholar and philosopher, working hard during the latter part of the 'Spring and Autumn Period' to revive a perfected form of Chinese civilisation, focussing on personal human morality and ideals of education and propriety. He believed in unification under an Emperor, but under elected succession rather than lineage. He further promoted the notion that, whilst you should respect your superiors, you also have the right to advise them should they be taking the wrong course of action. He believed in 'shu' (reciprocity), and in righteousness over self-interest: the notion that you should do the ethically right thing for the right reason, over and above doing things for personal gain. His teachings later went on to form the basis for the religious principles and cultural codes of conduct not just in mainland China but also across East Asia. After his work was translated into Latin (hence the Latin version of his name: Confucius) his teachings began to have a more global impact.
"What one does not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to anyone else; what one recognises as desirable for oneself, one ought to be willing to grant to others."
The movie leaps straight in as Confucius is promoted from being just a teacher at his academy to being the trusted advisor to the ruler of one of the three main kingdoms in that time, Lui. Initially appointed to being Minister of Rituals, his mastery of logic sees him win arguments against the other Masters, but also gain enemies. Loyal to the Minister, he soon shows that he can lend his mind to battle strategy as well, and is promoted to Secretary of State, in charge of protecting the Kingdom of Liu. Capable of winning potential wars without even having to amass troops, his cunning is unparalleled, but his mastery of politics is not as strong - the deception that involves going directly against his own teachings. Conspired against, he finds himself exiled and forced to leave his family and wander the other vast Kingdoms, undergoing extreme hardship and tragedy along the way but trying to stay true to his beliefs and continue to teach his disciples by example.
Confucius is a grand and epic tale about a major player in Chinese history who people in the West probably don't know enough about. Most famous for his wise sayings, his philosophical musings and tautological allusions, the story we have here is a much more dramatic, eventful and ultimately personal tale. The trademark fortune-cookie-style catchphrases that he is unfairly associated with are eschewed in favour of examples of him putting his profound concepts into practice, and the end result is that we get to understand his very way of thinking. Whether fighting against the outdated tradition that slaves be buried with their masters, or out-manoeuvring vastly bigger armies on the battlefield, using just his intellectual prowess, he proves himself unmatched in strategic thinking on all levels. The movie definitely succeeds at painting a beautiful portrait of this master tactician and pragmatic philosopher as he rises through the ranks but, at the turning point in the movie, things start to lose direction.
“If what others say is right and your fault is true, change it. If not, be careful of committing that kind of fault.”
I think that the reason for this is two-fold. The first reason in because of the way in which they have structured the life story. As with many biopics these days, I could envisage Confucius working extremely well as a 2-part tale. Both Mesrine and Che adopted this style, giving two very different movies which essentially accompany one another but do not necessarily follow the same structure. Confucius unfortunately attempts to tell this kind of two-part tale in one single two-hour entry, and it just seems like a bigger story than that. Many fans were most displeased with the abbreviated, theatrical cut of John Woo's epic Red Cliff, which eventually ended up being released in two parts on Blu-ray but was basically cut in half, the two movies' amalgamated, for the botched theatrical release. Confucius occasionally feels a little like this, the pace often chopping and changing, and towards the end of the movie you feel like they just pulled the plug and wrapped things up, which feels most abrupt.
The second reason for the lack of narrative direction, in my opinion, is because of the character of Nan Zi, the beautiful confidante of the ruler of a neighbouring Kingdom to Liu, Wei. Nan Zi is labelled a succubus, and her desire to meet with the renowned Confucius promotes wariness amidst the philosopher's disciples. They are basically worried that he is going to be seduced and ruined. Apparently, in a fairly widely publicised bit of legal action, a 16th generation descendant of Confucius himself threatened to sue the Director of the movie after he watched the trailer. He stated that he would take further action to defend Confucius' name should the movie insinuate that there was any kind of relationship between the master and the infamous Nan Zi. Now, I'm not sure whether or not the Director ever intended to do such a thing, but I do know that the trailer does prominently feature the two of them together, the front cover of the Blu-ray is devoted to just the two of them, and the back cover has her featuring in two out of the four small inset photos. For her character to then feature in practically a cameo role, having only one noteworthy scene, and then disappearing only for her story arc to reach a rather awkward, unexpected and decidedly anticlimactic conclusion, makes little sense in this film. It's a rather big anomaly.
"To know your faults and be able to change is the greatest virtue."
Whatever the original cut was (whether or not there was one), the movie suffers in this seemingly disjointed and abbreviated state, and you can't help wondering whether you'll ever see a longer, more deservedly epic version of the tale. Honestly, that's never going to happen, but still the movie does largely work - particularly if you take the view that the story is presented in a style more akin to Terrence Malick than Ridley Scott. Taking the movie in this more ethereal way, despite the structural problems in the narrative, you get a good 'feel' for Confucius' life and are probably reasonably satisfied by the end result. It is, after all, a good movie, and it helps no end that it is held together by a commanding performance from the vastly underrated Chow Yun-Fat.
One of the most famous Hong Kong actors, he never quite managed to bridge the language barrier and crack Hollywood. His success in the East came largely through working with John Woo, who also found difficulty breaking into the West, and, after the majority of his English-language films suffered from a poor reception, he returned to what made him a star in the first place. And ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which, in my opinion, was the peak of his career, I have been expecting him to take more wuxia-based period sword and kung-fu epics. He never returned to the Crouching Tiger franchise for a much-rumoured prequel, and instead appeared in the lavish but marginally heartless Curse of the Golden Flower in what was, essentially, the villainous role. He is, however, the perfect choice to play Confucius. Other actors could have brought to this mastermind an overbearing sense of arrogance and superiority, but Chow manages to bring to the table a very humble, honest performance which still shows off Confucius' amazing strength of character without making him a pretentious 'know it all'. It's an outstanding, commanding offering from the superstar, and it makes me wonder what might have been had he had a few more (or better) opportunities in the last decade or so of his career.
"Respect yourself and others will respect you."
Despite being surrounded by other actors who fit their roles, it is the lead star that is in the limelight throughout the affair. And the other characters, in my opinion, do suffer from the way they pop up as satellite revolving around the world of Confucius. The ruler of Liu's fate is dealt with off-screen, during the final act, the Prime Minister shifts allegiances throughout, slightly whimsically, Confucius' daughter appears to be present just for the sake of historical accuracy, and the aforementioned character of Nan Zi is, as stated, clearly set up to do far more than what we see in the end result. As such, few of the supporting actors remain in your mind after watching the movie.
There has also been some criticism of the movie's alleged attempts to promote Communist ideals. Personally, whilst I can see both some of the subtle and some of the more overt moments where this becomes apparent, I cannot see how this changes the fact that the movie is still reasonably faithful to the historical legacy of Confucius, and to Confucianism itself. Be it then, or now, the concept of one leader controlling the vast landmass (and volume of people) that is China is bewildering. In Confucius' time, the emperors found it extremely difficult enforcing its writ over such overwhelming distances. Confucianism introduced to the people an element of philosophical acceptance of one's fate and status in life, often making it easier for rulers to spread their laws (and distant, uncaring tyrants to demand unthinking blind obedience). It offered a paradoxical blend of fairness for the individual versus not upsetting the applecart. Even today, this faith is popular because it innately runs hand-in-hand with Communism, unlike Christianity or Islam, which can often be seen as threats to the supremacy of the country's leader.
None of this makes Confucius a vehicle for Communist ideals. After all, the formation of the People's Republic of China, to effectively unify China, is ultimately a distant result of the idea of unification that Confucius attempted to promote some two-and-a-half-thousand years ago. And not the other way around. Is the movie propaganda? In my opinion, no, it's a dramatised biopic of an important historical figure, and probably holds as much truth and weight to it than any such production (perhaps more so than the likes of Braveheart even). Was it released to mark both the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic, and the 2560th anniversary of Confucius' birth? Sure. Did the government insist that it be played in 2D cinemas in priority over Avatar? Initially, yes, but even they submitted when the figures came in. Does any of this make it a less worthy movie? No.
Personally, I enjoyed Confucius for what it was, and only wished it could have been a little longer (or split into two movies) and a little more comprehensive. As is, it still seems to remain faithful to the key historical events, it does have some solid battle sequences in it, and it generally looks beautiful (choreographed by the same guy who did Crouching Tiger) in its portrayal of feudal China. The commanding performance by Chow Yun-Fat carries you through the proceedings, narrative discrepancies notwithstanding, and you end up wondering how you actually managed to get this far through life without knowing anything about this Ghandi-like figure other than the fact that he was full of wise sayings. Recommended.
"If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of the shame, and moreover will become good."
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