Bringing a Sage to Life
While I have always been critical of historical films I have still enjoyed them and supported many, as they are sometimes the door for a person to become familiar with an aspect of history. This might, I dare suggest, lead to reading a book. Taking on the figure of Kongzi in a biographical movie is a risk to either provide something real and accessible to viewers, or to produce a misleading bit of fantastical myth. Indeed, there was and still is much debate over this interpretation of the Master Sage. I was please to find this production firmly planted on solid reason, with only a little embellishments.
The film focuses on what are the major events of Kongzi's life minus much of the myth surrounding him. It ignores his birth, which in some texts is straight out of Greek myth, and skips right to the well know period when he was an advisor for Duke Ding of Lu. It stays with this period of his life throughout beginning of the film, showing his successes as an advisor and how it made him enemies with the powerful family clans that mostly ran the state. The film continues after Kongzi is exiled from Lu and travels the Middle Kingdom looking for employment with his band of followers. It shows some famous meetings Kongzi had with those in power and how destitute he and his followers become traveling the countryside, as well as some of the appointments to government posts his followers win for themselves. Eventually, the film brings the story full circle only after Kongzi learns to be content with teaching and writing the now famous Annuls.
How this film appears is quite stunning. The costumes are very well done and showing a high degree of accuracy, as well as the sets. The viewer is given a good sense of how advanced ancient China really was by the technology and the decorations shown. The importance of this is to show that Kongzi was not speaking to a world filled with people incapable of understanding him, but an educated and develop people that could weight his words and their value.
There are many great actors in this film, especially among those that played Kongzi's followers. Ren Quan as Yan Hui is worthy of note, playing out the young man's steadfast loyalty to the Master he follows. He seems to suffer more at his Master's setbacks than Kongzi myself. Many of the actors play out emotional scenes of loss and suffering very well, tears welling up and wails of despair in the best classical Chinese cinematic tradition. However great the others are the film had to rest on one actor, and that was whoever played Kongzi. The tall frame of Chow Yun-fat held up well carrying the weight of Chinese history. He portrayed a well balanced blend of humility and knowledge throughout the movie. That might be the only real compliant, as the arrogance that a younger Kongzi was said to possess is not shown here.
There were many doubters when his Chow was announced to play Kongzi. People felt that the native Cantonese speaker would distort the Mandarin in which he would have to speak, thus making Kongzi sound less intelligent. Not being fleunt in either of these languages I can not comment on that myself. Chow has always had presence, it is one of the things I enjoy most about his movies. I have never felt that he was an actor to play any role, but an actor to play the right roles, ones that commanded such a presence. How Chow physically plays Kongzi was one of the brighter parts of the film. His body language at the beginning of the film shows perfectly a man who is aware of his greatness trying to appeal to his lessors through humility. This changes as Kongzi matures his philosophy and himself.
There were other concerns brought up by critics concerning Chow, tied to his action movie past. In the film there are a few action sequences. This shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with Chinese history. The times in which Kongzi lived were violent and politically chaotic. Wars, small skirmishes, displays of force, rebellions and outright conquering were all very common. Kongzi got involved in a few of these types of events as an advisor to Duke Ding, so of course this was shown in the movie. Many felt that this was lowering the imagine and story of the Sage to that of a action flick brawler. To be honest, I disagree. In the film Kongzi rarely takes direct action in the fighting, he is giving commands or in some other way witnessing the violence, not swinging his sword around. He displays talent at archery but that was something recorded in history that was attributed to him, as was his zither playing. In all I believe the critics are taking a movie too seriously. While this movie is not a history lesson it is a good place for beginners of ancient Chinese history to get an entertaining introduction to what Kongzi's life may have looked like. After this I would recommend academic level books.