Release date: October 4th, 2010
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 125 minutes
Country of origin: China
Original language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Director: Hu Mei
Writers: Chan Khan, He Yanjiang, Jiang Qitao, Hu Mei
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Zhou Xun, Chen Jianbin, Ren Quan, Lu Yi, Yao Lu
The teachings of Master Kong are still very much embedded in the lives of those who follow them today.
They can be found in the Analects, a collection of aphorisms compiled after his death in 479 BC. They’re more towards practical ethics than religious doctrine; dealing mostly with the conduct of life rather than the worship of deities.
While some sayings reflect on how sacrifices should be offered and how spirits should be dealt with, it is always clear that Master Kong is more concerned with how we live our mortal lives among each other and how we contribute to mankind. His philosophy, like existentialism, is akin to humanism.
It then seems entirely appropriate that the life of such an influential teacher should be the focus of a film. Confucius recounts key moments in Master Kong’s life; from when he was promoted to Minister for Law in his home state of Lu through, to his exile, and then writing what would be embodied in the Analects today.
In one of Master Kong’s sayings, it’s easy to see what he thinks of those who busy themselves with the practice of serving ghosts and the dead rather than focusing on what we can do for the living. What’s here and now is more important that what’s not. According to Master Kong, first these things must be understood before looking further.
For a teacher who talks about serving man and whose teachings bring us closer to humanism, Hu Mei’s biopic presents us with a different picture of Master Kong than what we infer from the Analects. Here he’s more of a military man and politician and the writers, Chan Khan, He Yanjiang, Jiang Qitao, along with Hu Mei, seem to have favoured a very loose retelling of events in the teacher’s life.
In another of his sayings from the Analects, Master Kong talks about sages. He is asked by Zigong if would consider a man who helps mankind to be humane. Confucius’ answer is clear; such a man who brings salvation to mankind would be far above that, he would be held with highest regard and be considered a ‘sage’.
For its grandeur and excess, together with its sweeping and at times ineffectual score, Confucius’ sense of decorum wears increasingly thin if you’re actually familiar with the teachings on Master Kong. I struggled to understand why they chose such a narrative which makes for a tiresome picture and does little justice to a great, historical figure.
In another passage from the Analects, Master Kong discusses his regard for ‘gentlemen’; those who are superior because they observe righteousness and aim towards humanness. Master Kong says he hasn’t been so lucky to meet one as wise as a sage, but he would be content to meet the next best thing.
Confucius withdraws from bridging the gap between the world of war and politics with what we see present in the Analects and also to engage us sufficiently in the dialectics that students of the philosophy of China and Japan are well schooled in.
Its philosophical discourse is absent here and it’s in stark contrast to other epics that have focused on great influential thinkers such as Siddhartha (1972), Gandhi (1982) and Wittgenstein (1993). In these films there is much emphasis on how experience, reflection and action follow a cycle.
What should have underlined a film like Confucius is his most important message in the ethics of reciprocity, known as The Golden Rule.
I think this is the most important thing Master Kong would like us to remember and to practice in our lives. This emphasis is oddly absent in the film. The teachings demonstrate a careful balance between Heaven and Earth, life and death, and that mankind must observe this balance in everything undertaken.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .