History vs Mystery

There will never be a 100% historically accurate Confucius movie. It would be in a dialect of ancient Chinese that literally nobody could understand. The manners and customs would be more alien than the wildest science fiction, and the character motivations truly inscrutable. And no matter how careful the scholarship, it would be open to attack from all sides, because the original source material is already riddled with holes, assumptions and later interpolations.

Our prime source for Confucius, The Analects, is a grab bag of anecdotes and quotations, assembled long after the famous philosopher’s death. A diligent scholar can rearrange the stories in a rough chronological order, revealing a narrative basis for Confucius’s life: his early career as a civil servant, his early successes, his fall from grace in his native state of Lu and his years of wandering. Take things to extremes, applying true academic rigour to the materials, and the historical Confucius evaporates altogether.

Hence, literally any biography of Confucius must involve dramatic licence. As with the First Emperor of China, we are forced to work from the thinnest of material, little more than snatches of overheard dialogue: a cluster of old sayings, and a few incidental details about the history of the period. Hu Mei’s film Confucius, starring Chow Yun-fat, is a brave effort that meticulously walks a difficult tightrope between historical accuracy and entertainment.

Hu is remarkably faithful to her subject. There are cutaways to life in the Spring and Autumn period, the 5th century BC lovingly and expensively recreated in architecture, furniture and costume. Confucius’s innovation and conservatism, his disdain for religion and his passion for ceremonial, not quite as contradictory as they first appear, are well conveyed in scenes of council arguments. Much of the script is lifted directly from the Analects, in scenes that cunningly manoeuvre Chow Yun-fat into places where he can speak them as dialogue.

The bulk of Hu Mei’s previous work has been in television, and one gets a sense that this sprawling, conspicuously worthy epic would have been better suited to an HBO mini-series. Even at two hours, the multi-authored script struggles to cram in all the incidents it deems necessary. If we are to believe rumours that it went through 25 drafts, I suspect that a dozen of them might have been brilliant snapshots of narrower periods in Confucius’s life, stapled together to form the final, bloated shooting script. Nestled in the myriad scenes one can see a film yet to be made about Confucius’s feud with the Jisun clan in his native state; another about his relationship with his closest disciples, particularly the volatile Zilu and the over-achieving Ran Qiu; still another about his twilight years strewn with tragedy. There are faint shadows here of a family drama focussing on his wife (whom he divorced) and children (one of whom married an ex-convict), and whispers offstage of his oddly modern childhood, as the son of an old soldier and a teenage bride, with a disabled older brother.

One of Confucius’s descendants has attacked Hu for her film’s concentration on dramatic action, but this is surely a reasonable decision in a two-hour movie. I see no problem in making Confucius a witness to the battles and skirmishes alluded to in the Analects. Nor am I troubled by the suggestion, however oblique, that he might have had feelings for the infamous Lady Nanzi. Nanzi was the most talked-about figure of her day, a royal consort variously described as a goddess, a bitch and a whore, the subject of adoring hymns and salacious ditties. She is surely one of the most alluring celebrities of Confucius’s day, and is delicately portrayed by Zhou Xun as a flinty, irascible stateswoman. The film’s Nanzi is beautiful but unlikeable, educated but capricious, wise but despised, precisely as the sources describe her.

Sometimes the film takes things too far. An archery contest between Confucius and a political rival is pointless points scoring. Confucius’s meeting with the philosopher Laozi is presented in a corny tableau of a mountaintop audience, and not the off-hand chat in a library it was far more likely to have been. But, if you must insist on historical accuracy, be careful what you wish for.

The entire movie is cluttered with onscreen titles, distractingly and often redundantly proclaiming the name and lineage of various characters. In most cases, these irritating hypertexts serve to inform us that an otherwise unidentified cameo belongs to a real historical individual, as if we are watching a film of Henry VI, and a comic-book arrow keeps bouncing into view to tell us that the Duke of Gloucester will one day become Richard III. This, then, is the two-line appearance of Zigong. Oh, look! There’s Yan Hui. That bloke at the back must be Ran Bo Niu. Such a barrage of notation is surely only of interest to a historian watching the film in slow-motion, and seems here to be little more than obsessively precise box-ticking, like an annoying cinemagoer, sitting two rows in front, who frequently yells: “THIS BIT REALLY HAPPENED.”

These onscreen titles are even distracting by their absence. On those rare occasions when a character doesn’t get a label, one immediately suspects that they have been made up for the film. Instead of watching the onscreen drama, one is instead lured into musings about how the screenwriters have dovetailed fact into fiction, and what purpose the new character serves. Moreover, the onscreen titles seem burned in to the original print; foreign releases would have been better served if they could have been turned off.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Confucius: A Biography. Hu Mei’s film Confucius is now available on Amazon and Play, and will be re-released in UK steelbook editions from Trinity Film in early 2015.

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2 thoughts on “History vs Mystery

  1. Reminds me of Bill Bryson’s book on Shakespeare, where he opens by apologising for, and explaining, its slimness, by stating that there are only some 63 facts known about Shakespeare, and so any biographical work of any length (including his own) has obviously been inflated by guesswork, supposition and thick paper.

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