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Hu Mei's epic biopic shows one of China's greatest thinkers in action. Chow Yun-fat stars as the fifth-century B.C.E. philosopher.
"Our ministers believe your theories of civility in government to be impracticable. Do you think they can work?"
This question, asked of Kong Qiu (whose name was later Latinised to Confucius in the West) about halfway through Hu Mei's epic biopic, cuts to the heart of the film's inner tensions. Confucius may dramatise the life and precepts of the legendary Chinese sage - but in showing the conversion of his ideas into action, the film also exposes the practical shortcomings of his principles.
Here all of Confucius' political and military triumphs come early - and thereafter, as his ambitious efforts to change the world through government end in failure and exile, he gradually becomes disenchanted with public office and retreats from the political sphere, wandering the different kingdoms of China in search of a place that will accommodate his teachings.
It stars Hong Kong icon Chow Yun-fat, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) fame. It features exquisitely colour-coded set design and costumes, awesome widescreen spectacle, and massed battle sequences. And it is set at the end of the Spring and Autumn Period, when civil war and social upheaval were violently closing the chapter on the feudal system of the Zhou Dynasty.
So Hu's Confucius bears all the hallmarks of a classic wuxia, or ancient Chinese martial arts film - apart from the fact that its protagonist Kong Qiu is a philosopher rather than a warrior, and is not once, despite his skill at archery, shown wielding a weapon in combat.
Rather, Kong Qiu's specialties are morality-driven governance and diplomatic strategy - but the higher he rises, the more enemies he makes, until finally he is driven out of the Kingdom of Lu altogether and forced to travel through China's different states with his train of disciples, bearing witness to the war and chaos all round.
So while Confucius celebrates the ethics of what would later become known as Confucianism, it also stages the mismatch between high ideals and realpolitik - as though to say that there was no place in China for China's greatest thinker.
In the film's opening scene, an aging Kong Qiu is heard declaring that his philosophy "can be fulfilled only in times to come." Whether those times have yet arrived remains unanswered - which is what, beyond all the solid performances, high production values and occasional mawkishness, makes Confucius stick in the mind.
For if Confucius offers a statement on the manoeuvrings and machinations in the ancient Far East, it also poses subversive questions about the politics of modern China, where revolutionary ideals easily give way to greed, corruption and vested interests.
Hu's film uses the engaging forms of the wuxia genre, and the messianic charisma of its legendary protagonist, to ask whether high ideals have any place in low politics.
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