Monday, March 01, 2010

CONFUCIUS - Uneven But Still Engaging

CONFUCIUS (biographical drama)
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Lu Yao, Zhou Xun and Chen Jian Bin
Director: Hu Mei
Time: 121 mins
Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 4)

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL? The most controversial and dramatic thing about this movie happened off-screen in mid-January. Many Internet users and related groups called for a boycott of the film when it was reported that China had ordered 2D versions of Avatar to be pulled out so that more people would watch Confucius. However, due to low attendance for Confucius, and the high demand for Avatar, the Chinese government reversed their decision and allowed Avatar to remain on some 2-D screens in China.

This choice appeared to be at least partly based on the financial performance of the two films, with Avatar grossing nearly 2.5 times more money per day. The movie was to mark the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and Confucius’ 2,560th birthday.

Yes, this is after Mao Zedong's Red Guards condemned the ancient scholar and destroyed his family cemetery and temple in his hometown of Qufu. Ironically, one of Confucius sayings is that "an oppressive government is more to be feared than a tiger".

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The first half of the movie traces the rise and popularity of Confucius (played by Chow Yun Fat) in the state of Lu during the Spring and Autumn Period where he is known for his fair and just ideas about running the affairs of the state. He is promoted from town mayor to minister. However, his ideas and practices break with tradition and anger the ruling families. An example is when he saves a burial slave from being entombed alive. He incurs the wrath of the rulers of the surrounding kingdoms by tricking them into giving back seized territory without any violence.

The second half, circa 497 BC, shows Confucius and his disciples in exile, wandering about for years and getting chased away by the locals.

HITS & MISSES: As you can see from the paragraphs above, the first half of this two-hour film is more eventful and interesting than the second. There is a gripping war sequence about the storming of a fort that recalls the action in Red Cliff. And that's about it for the action fans.

Chow rises to the occasion as the calm and collected Kong Qiu, the revered teacher whose philosophy and views helped to revolutionise some states in China. When political jealousy and fears about his influence send him into exile, the scenes get repetitious and languid. This is punctuated with a subplot about Nan Zi (Zhou Xun, left), consort to the Wei king who respects the wisdom of Confucius. However, her magnetic appearances are brief and almost cameo-like, leaving most of the second half as prolonged and protracted scenes of Kon Qiu's wanderings and sufferings.

Technically, this US$23-million production looks rich and even stunning at times. Cinematographer Peter Pau (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) captures the period and locations in all their glory and helps to put us in the right mood and atmosphere of the times.

THE LOWDOWN: Confucius is not a lost cause. It just looks messy, like too many cooks having a hand at the broth.


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