Confucius is an epic Chinese biopic from Hu Mei, director of, amongst other things, Far From War and Yongzheng Wangchao, a popular historical series in China. Detailing the life of the revered Chinese philosopher, Mei’s film aims high but finds it difficult to articulate Confucius’ intriguing story.
The historical setting itself is the first of many problems. In her determination to give a grand context to Confucius’ dealings, Mei chooses to introduce a great deal of characters very quickly, some of whom will turn out to be far less important than others, in a rather fuddled first act that throws too much on screen too quickly. As a result, the narrative leaps between kingdoms, aristocratic houses and politicians so much that it becomes off-putting. It isn’t so clustered as to forgo narrative sense, but one feels a bit more editing and streamlining would have helped this section hang together better.
Then we come to Confucius’ exile, which removes him from the political landscape of the first half of the film and dilutes some of the film’s focus. Kingdoms and territories flash by in the blink of an eye as Confucius and his band move around, whilst people routinely turn up to tell him how bad things are in the wider world, though we rarely see any of it. Likewise, a section in the kingdom of Wei (where the ruler’s concubine appears to hold more power than the man himself) moves past too quickly to make good on its initial promise, with Zhou Xun’s cunning Nanzi ultimately underused. This second half also maintains the film’s habit of having characters travel hundreds of miles in single cuts, admittedly something which the story demands rather than the narrative chooses.
The film’s few concessions to on-screen violence (this is not an action film by any stretch) unfortunately end up being distracting rather than exciting, probably as a result of the film’s focus on Confucius’ teachings (which are far more interesting) and some throwaway CGI that dampens the effect when massive armies gather on screen. When Chow Yun-Fat was initially cast as Confucius, many feared that it would turn the film into an action extravaganza. That hasn’t happened. The film wisely decides to spend more time on politics and philosophising rather than on fighting, which of course reflects its main character’s own beliefs.
Flaws aside, and despite its uneven pacing, Confucius does have positives. Whilst it could hardly be called a towering performance, Chow Yun-Fat carries the film strongly as the ageing philosopher, managing to establish good relationships with a host of subsidiary characters. Ren Quan, as Yan Hui, adds some emotional depth and gets a good scene on a frozen ice lake that is one of the film’s more effective symbolic moments. It looks good too, Peter Pau’s imagery coming across most strongly when it isn’t trying too hard; there are a couple of slightly twee moments, and the sub-standard (and frankly unnecessary) CGI doesn’t help, but overall the film is visually arresting.
Confucius is a sweeping, sumptuous biopic that succeeds in making an interesting character out of a key historical figure, but it is by no means a complete success. The narrative feels unfocused at times and the pace is changeable, but give it a chance and the presence of Chow Yun-Fat, at least, will win you over.