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February 12, 2010

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Confucius says: flop

THE much-promoted "Confucius" about China's greatest thinker disappoints audiences and critics and stirs controversy about portrayal of the sainted sage. Xu Wei reports.

Confucius," the first big-screen portrayal of the iconic sage, has failed to draw big crowds at the box office, even after blockbuster "Avatar" was moved aside to make way for the biopic.

Moviegoers say they were frustrated or bored, critics say the movie doesn't work and some scholars don't like the portrayal of the flesh-and-blood sage in the later stages of his life.

Since its debut on January 22, the US$20 million film has only made 7 million yuan (US$1.03 million) at the local box office, and 70 million yuan nationwide.

It stars Hollywood-based Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-fat as China's greatest thinker and Zhou Xun as love-interest Nan Zi, an imperial concubine of the Wei Kingdom in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

Chow's performance is generally praised.

The widely promoted film was developed in part with the Chinese government to promote the philosophy of Confucius.

The film by female director Hu Mei is at times meditative, action-packed with battle scenes, informative/tedious, filled with Confucian sayings, sprinkled with supernatural sequences and yet unsatisfying - that seems to be the consensus. The score is generally agreed to be bombastic.

"It was a terrible theater-going experience for us," says Jackie Chen, a white-collar professional. He and his wife walked out.

"Like many others, we were first attracted by the cast, but found the film lacked a solid story line and strong script. Some scenes are a poor imitation of 'The Passion of Christ'," he adds.

Though director Hu made her name directing many TV series about powerful historic figures, such as Qing Dynasty Emperor Yongzheng and prominent Chinese banker Qiao Zhiyong, she hasn't delivered an excellent feature film.

"Obviously the director is not good at visual storytelling," Chen says. "A moving film should not be a superficial assemblage of stars."

He and many others say lots of scenes seem meaningless and awkward, as when the sage meets Nan Zi, and when he and his students share a bowl of soup.

Scholars, of course, can never be pleased.

Some say the director misread Confucius life and philosophy and has focussed excessively on daily life and trifles.

According to Professor Gu Xiaoming, a historian and movie critic from Fudan University, Confucius is portrayed as "a failurer and a passive idealist" in the film's second half after he is banished from court - contrary, says Gu, to fact.

"The experience in his late years should be the most inspiring and thought-provoking part of the film, demonstrating the making of China's greatest thinker and educator," Gu adds. "In fact, the saint with a powerful heart is well-prepared for any challenges. The setbacks in official circles can never stop his unending pursuit of wisdom, morality and justice."

Compared with the wide criticism the film director and scriptwriter have received, actor Chow is widely praised. It is said Chow took two and a half hours getting made up for the role, worked hard to improve his Mandarin, studied ancient Chinese rituals and lost four kilos for the role.

Of course, some people enjoyed the film.

Wang Lei, a fan in his 30s, says he learned about Confucian philosophy and history.

"It is understandable that the film may create a stir since everybody has fixed ideas about the revered figure," he says. "Many people are not used to the fresh portrayal of the sage, showing his archery skills, military wisdom and implicit romance."

Director Hu is unperturbed, saying it's not a bad thing if the controversy can raise awareness of the sage among the younger generation.

She says it was a challenge to explain in easy-to-understand visual language Confucius' profound philosophy whose basic concept is ren, namely humanity, compassion and care for one's fellow man.

"It's hard to depict all facets of the saint within such a limited time in a feature film," she says. "Our film concentrates on is his versatility and unremitting spirit to pursue the truth."


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