Chow Yun Fat stars as the legendary thinker of ancient China, charting his rise to a senior member of the royal court, followed by his years in exile.
A great progressive of his day, Confucius is seen advocating liberal reforms to his imperial masters. In one early scene he’s laughed at for suggesting that slaves shouldn’t be buried alive with their deceased masters. But he’s more than just a great ethicist, pulling off impressive feats of diplomacy, works of strategic genius in battle, and sharing the secrets of societal harmony.
As a result we’re treated to some impressive military displays, although these don’t dominate the film as the quotes on the DVD cover appear to suggest. Somewhat surprisingly, Fat is given the space to allow Confucius’s wisdom to shine through, with his reflections and promotion of universal education forming the centre point of the film. This is good, because it never quite lives up to the promised visual splendor.
In one scene, while in exile, he and his followers are crossing a frozen lake. The ice breaks and Confucius’s teachings tumble into the water, his followers diving in after them. What could have been an action film places impressively high stakes on the power of thought. But unfortunately we’re never shown how he came to be a great thinker or really get into his head. At the start of the film he’s already a wise man, and continues to be so.
It’s ambitious in its scale, but pales in comparison to better finished films, with visual effects sequences not looking as real as they could. And certainly compared to other recent Chinese epics like Hero and The Banquet it fails to inspire as much as its illustrious subject.