Sunday, 19 September 2010

Review : Confucius

Back in January the Chinese government, fearing the effects of the cultural over-saturation of James Cameron's Avatar juggernaut, pulled all 2D prints of the film from cinemas and replaced them with this State-approved historical biopic, timed to co-incide with the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. The film's overt message of the individual being sacrificial to the greater good, and the necessity of one unifying sovereign leader clearly seemed a more befitting spectacle for mass consumption than Cameron's eco-liberal behemoth.

It's perhaps unfortunate then for the average Chinese cinemagoer without access to a 3D screen, and thus unable to see Avatar, that's its' replacement should be such a bore. Like the cinema equivalent of a Wikipedia entry, Confucius gives us a condensed history lesson more concerned with dramatising as many key events in the politician/philosopher's life than offering any kind of emotional or psychological insight. This results, especially at the start, in a wealth of contextual historical information, all displayed on title cards and as surtitles above subtitles on the screen. There's far too much plot squeezed into it's two hour running time, much is skipped over in the intertitles and the rest laboriously discussed on screen. With so many characters introduced throughout, often of perhaps historical importance but of little to the film, it's easy to get lost.

Chow-Yun Fat's performance is pretty hammy, and the almost God-like reverance shown by the filmmakers for his character removes all dramatic tension from the political and strategic decisions he makes, every victory hardly comes as a surprise. Confucius is shown as wise and worthy throughout his life, from his skilful political debates to his strategic military successes, there's even a scene of him discussing philosophy and dreaming up fortune cookie quotes whilst sitting up a mountain on a pink cloud with a thinly veiled God figure.

Battle scenes are CGI heavy in long-shot and badly edited in close-up, and the rest of the pedestrian direction and photography do little to animate such a tedious history lesson. We learn nothing of Confucius himself other than on the most superficial biographical level, it's a shame that the filmmakers deem what he represents and the context of his teachings, reduced here to soundbites, more important than the making of the man himself and the evolution of his school of thought, a psychological journey completely unrepresented here. The scope of the picture is simply too broad, whilst placing Confucius in his historical context, however literal the parallels with today, character is sacrificed for the momentum of the factually dense narrative. You're constantly being told and shown why Confucius was so great, without being able to make that discovery for yourself, but with such manipulative and heavy handed musical  underscoring throughout you're hardly given a chance.

Confucius - 2009 - China - 125 mins - Dir : Mei Hu

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