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Kung fu Confucius

CASTING a Hong Kong action hero to play Confucius has outraged some purists. They oppose the big-budget portrayal of the iconic sage as a martial arts master with a sense of humor and a love interest. Xu Wei reports.

The challenge of playing Confucius is rather like taking on the role of Socrates or Moses. Everybody has powerful, fixed ideas about the revered figure and people are bound to be offended by some aspects of any portrayal.

To many people, Kongzi or Confucius was a saint, a philosopher who expounded the traditional ideas of harmony and hierarchy that are so important in China today.

Once, however, the sage was reviled, his respect for strict hierarchy seen as an impediment to social and economic progress. Now he is an icon.

So the idea that China's greatest thinker would be portrayed by Hollywood-based Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-fat - and that Confucius would be portrayed as a man of action, humor and romance - has upset quite a few people. The idea of a blockbuster biopic about saintly Confucius has struck some people as undignified, to say the least.

Director Hu Mei says Confucius was "vibrant." He could drive a chariot, hit a target with bow and arrow from horseback and was an accomplished swordsman, she says.

"Confucius" will be China's first feature film about the sage who lived from 551-479 BC, and it is a co-production of the Beijing-based Dadi Cinema and the state-run China Film Group.

This is not the only controversy about upcoming films about famous figures and the casting of celebrities and non-actors.

There are also films in the works about Chairman Mao Zedong (starring an entrepreneur investor), Lei Feng (starring Olympic diver Tian Liang) and Jia Baoyu from "A Dream of Red Mansions" (starring a "My Hero" finalist Ma Tianyu).

The biopic "Confucius," however, stirs the greatest controversy.

Movie star Chow, though, is undeterred. He himself, now in his 50s, is a legend of Hong Kong cinema for his spectacular performances in action movies by John Woo.

Chow also starred in Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2003) and Roger Spottiswoode's "Children of Huang Shi" (2008).

Filming by female director Hu started last month. It will be shot around Beijing, Shandong Province (Confucius' birthplace) and Hengdian Film Studios in Zhejiang Province.

The 150-million-yuan (US$22 million)-budgeted biopic also stars veteran actor Jiao Huang as Laozi or Laotzu, founder of Taoism, and Zhou Xun as Nan Zi, an imperial concubine of the Wei Kingdom in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

How does one portray an icon?

Some Netizens say they don't want to see a Cantonese-speaking Confucius, suggesting Chow first needs to improve his Mandarin Chinese. Some doubt whether he knows enough about the philosopher's thoughts and teachings to deliver a convincing portrayal.

Director Hu is confident in Chow's ability to deliver a convincing Confucius.

"He is the right person for the character who has many layers and characteristics," she said in an earlier interview, citing his "Crouching Tiger" and other performances.

"In addition to martial arts, Chow has demonstrated his refinement and thoughtfulness," she said.

It is reported that before Chow was cast, the producers had approached distinguished TV and stage actor Pu Cunxi. Pu reportedly turned it down because of script problems, saying Hu's film portrays the sage as a "kung fu master."

Director Hu has defended the film's action and romantic elements, saying that Confucius was not only a moral teacher and scholar who only knew how to read and preach. In her eyes, the thinker represents a totality of humor, action, romance and rationality.

"Confucius was a living, vibrant person," Hu says. "He once directed a battle. His disciples Zilu and Ranyou were swordsmen and archers of the highest caliber. You can find all of this in reliable history texts."

One thing is certain: Chow's international fame is expected to help the global market for the movie.

Ensuring good box office drives many film makers, and other upcoming productions have generated controversy for their casting of celebrities in key roles.

Tian Liang, former Olympic 10-meter platform diving champion, has been cast as model soldier Lei Feng (1940-62) in a TV series. Lei was celebrated for his selflessness and devotion to serving the people.

After leaving the Chinese national diving team in 2007, Tian became a TV actor. His work has not been impressive. News of the casting has drawn an angry response from Netizens and Lei's old comrades. Tian says he will portray the hero for free.

A Netizen called "Jane01" says, "Tian is a good diver. But he has totally different life background and experiences compared with Lei Feng. Besides, he is a pop star now. If he performs Lei Feng, many people will misinterpret Lei."

Tian's enormous media exposure, particularly his luxury wedding ceremony, has fueled concerns about his suitability for the role, since Lei actually kept a low profile. He was, however, inflated for propaganda purposes.

A similar controversy surrounds Jia Yun, an entrepreneur from Zhejiang Province, who has no acting experience but plans to play Chairman Mao Zedong in the film "The First Rule." He is a producer and co-investor in the film, envisioned as the first part of a trilogy.

"It offers me a chance to know more about the great leader," Jia said in an earlier interview. "Before acting, I read a lot of biographies about him."

He also plans to star in "Mao Zedong 1927" and "The Zunyi Meeting."

Also in the spotlight over casting is pop celebrity Ma Tianyu, a finalist of the star-making TV program "My Hero" in 2006. Ma is now playing the young feudal noble Jia Baoyu in a TV drama series based on the late 18th-century literary classic "A Dream of Red Mansions."

Aaron Wang, a professional media critic, says casting celebrities and pop stars is simply an effort to make money - and controversy fuels box office.

"To attract public interest, some TV and film producers will try anything," Wang says. "Controversial casting can be an effective means of promotion and media hype."

There are, however, a few successful domestic productions whose popularity don't rely on the fame or commercial value of the actors.

Wang Baoqiang, a former construction worker and screen extra, rocketed to stardom after his impressive leading role in "Soldiers Sortie" (2007).

"It is necessary to shift both the public and the producers' attention back to the script," says Professor Liu Haibo, a teacher in film and TV art from Shanghai University. "A good script can nurture talented actors. It is acceptable to see some commercial and entertaining elements, but never too much," he says.

"As for classics or portraits of heroic characters, people need to show respect for them rather than make a parody of their lives, out of commercial motives."


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