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Thursday, March 8, 2012

CONFUCIUS -- DVD review by porfle

If, like me, your only knowledge of Confucius is when people say "Confucius say..." and then reel off some pithy remark, director Mei Hu's CONFUCIUS (2010) will help to enlighten you about what made the guy so quotable in the first place. 

Former John Woo action star Chow Yun Fat (THE KILLER, HARD-BOILED) gives a measured, meticulously controlled performance that displays his continuing maturation as an actor.  His Kong Qiu--as Confucius was more commonly known circa 500 B.C.--is a family man in his early fifties whose quiet wisdom and belief in government based on ethics and civility earn him a position that puts him right in the middle of clashes between rival provinces and "noble" families in ancient China. 

The film begins with his successful fight to end the practice of burying slaves alive with deceased noblemen and his peaceful resolution of a potentially volatile dispute with a neighboring dukedom.  Further attempts to reduce the growing power of the three main families in the Kingdom of Lu make him a target of their conspiratorial schemes, until even his main allies in government turn against him.  Accompanied by his fervent followers, the exiled Kong Qiu wanders the land from state to state as the country goes to hell around him, until in desperation the leaders of an embattled Kingdom of Lu seek his council once again. 

The story's pretty simple if you can make your way through all the needless exposition and rapid-fire introduction of so many characters you'd need a photographic memory to keep track of them all.  The dry, stately narrative is at its best when we see Kong Qiu countering the chest beating of his power-hungry political rivals with reason and compassion, or figuring out logical solutions to problems that seem destined to be resolved on the battlefield. 

He doesn't manage to peacefully defuse all of these situations, thank goodness, which means we get two or three large-scale battle sequences to liven things up here and there.  They're impressively rendered with a combination of full-sized sets and deft digital trickery--in one sequence, a tidal wave of molten metal blazes down a stone incline into a horde of attackers as the sky is filled with flaming arrows. 

Even so, these battle scenes are brief, perfunctory stepping stones in the narrative, with little emotional impact.  The film itself never really tries to be an epic even when all the elements of one are right there on the screen.  Rather, it's the story of a humble man living in epic times--although, for the most part, we learn more about Kong Qiu as a font of wisdom and an inspiration to others than as a man.  Even the scenes in which he interacts lovingly with his family are mere snapshots.  It's left up to Chow Yun Fat to supply most of his character's depth of feeling with that expressive face of his.

CONFUCIUS is at its best when Kong Qiu meets Nanzi (Xun Zhou), the beautiful consort to a neighboring king and the true power behind his throne.  He's awed by her royal radiance and beauty as she basks in his mental and emotional depth--at first, each tries to bow lower than the other in deference.  Taking advantage of this rare opportunity for a woman of the time to commune with such a sage, Nanzi seduces Kong Qiu with a spiritual and intellectual flirtatiousness which the actors portray almost as a delicate, exquisite kind of dance.

The Blu-Ray/DVD combo from Funimation is in 16:9 widescreen with Mandarin and English 5.1 Dolby sound.  Subtitles are in English.  Extras consist of several "making-of" featurettes (approx. 7 minutes each) and a trailer.

CONFUCIUS is a film in which the potentially sweeping visual splendor is held firmly in check by a sometimes bloodless story, and the plot resolutions are more intellectually stimulating than emotionally stirring.  It is, in fact, an outstanding accomplishment which deserves to be seen, yet--after a promising start--I found the scenes which I most wanted to be moved by to be oddly unmemorable.

Buy it at
Blu-Ray/DVD combo

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