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Our review of Confucius (Blu-ray), published March 26th, 2012, is also available.
How do you tackle an autobiographical film about the one of the most influential philosophers in all of Asia? You hire Chow Yun-Fat (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End) to play him!
Thinking isn't known to be a very cinematic experience, so it takes guts to make a film about a philosopher. Luckily, the life of Confucius can be spiced up because of all the chaos going on in 495 BC. Confucius (Chow Yun-Fat) is already a popular scholar and teacher in the State of Lu, when he is declared the Minister of Justice. Wresting power away from the local lords who control everything, he uses his teachings to bring prosperity and happiness to all the people. Though it isn't long before Confucius' enemies force him out of Lu. As he wanders through other Chinese states learning and teaching, the country falls into a quagmire of war and deceit, fueling Confucius' desire to return home, so he can serve the State of Lu once again before he dies.
At just over two hours, Confucius is going for the epic biopic. Everything is larger than life, from the portrayal of this famous philosopher and the film's stunning visual grandeur, to Jiping Zhao's sweeping musical score. The costumes and sets are impressive, pulling viewers into the world of the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history. Special effects are used sparingly, most notably during the battle scenes and panoramic views of the ancient cities.
Unfortunately, the film falls into all the usual biopic tropes. Attempting to condense all the important events, plot machinations, and numerous characters into one workable script, the characters come across as two-dimensional cutouts, leaving the actors with little to work with, and audience with a mere surface level investment. There are frequent subtitles that appear whenever a character provides their name and position in society, but none of them make any sort of lasting impression.
I get the feeling Chow Yun-Fat was treading carefully here. His is a reverent portrayal, all wisdom and sage glances. When he speaks, everyone listens and is inspired. Except for the antagonists, that is. Though not portrayed not as mustache twirling villains, these are men who understand and respect Confucius, but see him as threat to the power base they've created.
In fact, the whole production feels like it didn't want to take too many risks, instead treating such an important cultural icon with dignity. But in taking so few chances, the story feels calculated and flat. Luckily the production elements and lovely camerawork somewhat make up for it.
Funimation gives Confucius a worthy DVD treatment. The film looks gorgeous in standard definition 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, with excellent clarity capturing the detail of the costumes and sets. The colors pop off the screen and the blacks are solid. The Dolby 5.1 Surround mix is equally impressive. The original Mandarin language track is well balanced and clear, with subtitles that are easy to read and well timed. I gave the English dub a spot check and it was of equal caliber.
Extras are fairly impressive. Eight behind-the-scenes featurettes, each lasting around seven minutes, cover various elements of production; including interviews with the stars, making the battle sequences, designing and creating the sets, and working with the animals used in the film. Together they provide a detailed look at the making of the film that should please fans wanting to know more.
Confucius is an audio/visual treat, but the story and its characters aren't as compelling. As historical dramas go, I was hoping for something that would truly wow me.
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