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Screen legend Chow Yun-fat stars as Confucius in the inspiring, action-packed saga of a leader whose wisdom and cunning were more powerful than any sword. In this sweeping battlefield epic, Confucius finds his lands threatened by the fires of war. After leading the nation’s most powerful army to victory against hordes of invaders, the new hero finds even greater danger in the jealous eyes of the aristocrats he fought to protect. From the Producer of John Woo’s Red Cliff and Jet Li’s Warlords, and captured on camera by Oscar-winning Director of Photography Peter Pau (Crouching tiger, Hidden Dragon), Chow Yun-fat delivers the award-nominated performance of a lifetime as a teacher, a military leader, and a legend in Confucius.
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Unfortunately, I do not understand Chinese, so like the other reviewers, I am reduced to reading subtitles. There are "double subtitles," too. Some subtitles are incorporated into the film that provide historical background, another set of subtitles provide dialogue translations at the very bottom of the screen, and, yes, they move a bit quickly and can appear simultaneously, so you might miss things the first time through. Fortunately, the film is worthy of multiple viewings, so don't worry about this too much. The two scenes that impressed me the most were a dialogue between Lao Tzu and Confucius, probably inspired by the Chuang Tzu, shot as a dream sequence, as the two of them probably never met and the actual existence of Lao Tzu still a subject of debate, and the death of Yan Hui, one of Confucius' favorite disciples, who loses his life trying to save books from a lake. Both scenes have beautiful color and use light with great effect, especially Yan Hui's death scene in which the action is slowed down. You don't have to be a book lover to appreciate his courage and nobility in trying to rescue the things of greatest importance to Confucius and his disciples.
Chow-yun Fat's performance is very human. Confucius is portrayed not as an icon, but as a multi-dimensional and somewhat complicated character who maintains his principles despite adversity. However,I would have liked to have seen more in the way of relationship building between Confucius and his students. The film portrays Confucius' interaction with his students in wide bipolar swings, either aloof and restrained or deeply emotional and attached, depending on the narrative's needs. Developing the student-teacher relationships would have provided a venue for revealing more of Confucius' philosophy, which, I am sad to say, is a little weak in its presentation. While there is much mention of "humanity" and "propriety," important Confucian themes, discussion of the "Five Great Relationships," the character of human nature, or "filial" obligations seems slight and indirect. Though these themes are well incorporated into the plot, they somewhat suffer from it, as the plot can become complicated and hard to follow demanding careful attention from the viewer. Confucian philosophy can become secondary and obscured by the narrative. Notably, in first half of the film, when a political triangulation and court intrigue undermine Confucius' authority and sends him into exile. Confucian ritual is portrayed, but I think its significance is lost to the Western viewer. Consequently, Confucius, though very human, lacks intellectual depth, and a shallow sage he was not.
I am not Chinese but I love Chinese history, epics, etc. I am so happy I purchased this movie. Thanks Amazon for offering such a great selection of movies of this kind.
That said, I still give it 3.5 stars, rounding up to 4. It conveys a poignancy, a sense his times and challenges, and is generally visually attractive and well-done. I think it may be better the second time around, as the choppy nature of the story will not be so jarring. Finally, Zhou Xun as the character Nanzi is absolutely amazing in her combination of intensity, subtlety and poignancy.