There are a few actors I will watch in literally anything. Chow Yun-Fat remains one of them, and I have sat through some of the most amazing junk just because he was in it and could make anything seem plausible — or tolerable — with that snappy smile of his. He made the bloated Curse of the Golden Flower marginally watchable, and he even made it possible to keep my eyes on the screen during the bottom-of-the-barrel Bulletproof Monk (at least, when he was actually visible). Likewise, he makes Confucius that much more watchable, even when the film itself never remains more than average.
The title should be a tipoff. It’s a lavishly-funded and spectacularly-photographed (by veteran HK cinematographer Peter Pau) look at the thinker who has become most closely identified with Chinese culture generally. His ideas remain important and thoughtful: he put human beings above abstractions like gods and empty ritual; he emphasized the importance of personal cultivation and learning; he noted that all of this had to take place within a stable social structure for the benefit of all. He came up with this doctrine at a time when China was a patchwork of feuding kingdoms and when violence was terribly commonplace, and so to many ears his words sounded Utopian and unreachable.
Chow Yun-Fat as Confucius isn't a bad idea, but the movie
doesn't tell a story worth such a casting choice.
This could all make for a fascinating film, but Confucius is not quite that movie. Some parts of it work very well, as in an early scene where Confucius argues quite wittily for saving the life of a condemned slave. A fair slice of the middle of the film is straight out of the HK feudal-action playbook, where he tricks a neighboring kingdom into giving up its territory and they retaliate with a rain of arrows that blot out the sun. The last third or so, where the sage and his disciples wander through the land, is the least effective: it tells us nothing we didn’t already know about him or his men, and it all ends on a note of exhaustion rather than relief.
What’s missing most, though, is any sense of a throughline, a persuasive narrative about the man’s life that begs to be told. We see costumes and war scenes and sense the great sweep of some history marching past, but the way the movie frames all this in the context of Confucius’s life is too generic. The few scraps thrown to us that demonstrate his wisdom and insight are tossed over the movie’s shoulder. They’re not built on in a way that feels more than trivially compelling, even if the parade of scenery and costumes are nice to look at — and most any movie can do those things with one hand tied behind its back now, anyway. It’s stories, not imagery, that are in the shortest supply these days.
Maybe this material just doesn’t lend itself to a proper story, period. Japanese historical novelist Yasushi Inoue took a stab at that with his own short novel about Confucius and his disciples, but it too was terribly static. Neither that book nor this movie found the right way to dramatize someone whose most impressive achievements were things that don’t look all that impressive on a screen anyway. That only makes the war-movie segment in the middle look all the more awkward — at least they don’t have him running out onto the field and reprising his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon martial-arts antics.
Critics in Hong Kong and elsewhere have lambasted the movie for being little more than a timely propaganda piece in service of Chinese mainland government ideals. Maybe it is, but before I can accuse Confucius of being propaganda I have to accuse it of being yet another misuse of Chow Yun-Fat. I can see him in the role. But this isn’t the movie for that role, and it’s a shame.