Ever since the China Media Group’s uber-unpopular decision to pull out uber-popular Avatar from 2D screens for Confucius, there have been multiple rumblings about the philosophical implications of Chinese audiences abandoning the centuries-old sage for blue-skinned aliens. While we won’t completely dismiss the “Avatar = nailhouse troubles” argument, based on our recent viewing of Confucius, we think there’s a much simpler reason people are avoiding it: It sucks.
Seriously, it’s long and tedious and very, very boring.
Granted, we’ve never been that big of a fan of Confucius’ conservative feudal society philosophies – perhaps, drunk on Western thought (which is what our parents accuse us of being), it’s harder for us to accept values that ask you to docilely obey someone just because they’re older/born higher up the food chain/have testicles. Even without our inherent prejudices, we’re sure that trying to write a script about a guy who’s life story involves waxing on about morality before being kicked from country to country is no easy task.
Still, we’re not sure the screenwriters of this movie even tried to make it anything but a misstep of a Chinese epic. A soaring score punctuates everything Confucius and his disciples do – whether it’s pleading for the life of a burial slave or deciding not to stay in a country because the Princess is too pretty.
Speaking of the Princess, while Zhou Xun is billed as a star in the movie, her role is nothing more than a very transparent paste-on to make the Confucius plot sexier. Spoiler alert: She’s the one pulling the strings behind an old pervy Emperor of the Wei Kingdom. She invites Confucius over after being wowed by stories of his smarts, flirts with him a little, and is subsequently wowed even more by his ability to stay strong in the face of her beauty. Then he leaves and she gets assassinated, likely by an envious Wei Prince. The end.
Subplots like that, which go nowhere, are a staple of the film. Other staples: moments where disciples are like “Gee, Confucius is great,” moments where officials are like “Gee, Confucius is troublesome,” moments where someone sacrifices something for a dubious reason – I.E. when (again SPOILER ALERT) one of Confucius’ favorite disciples dies trying to save his teachings from falling to the bottom of a frozen river. The kicker being that Confucius’ teachings were all written on bamboo, which… floats. Was there ever a saying that went “Not thinking before jumping into icy water, person is bound to get cold feet”?
But worse than all the plot failings and ploddingly long scenes is the sad possibility that this was somehow suppose to rejuvenate Confucianism in China, to provide a moral backbone to the populace now that Maoism has failed and Dengisms are beginning to ring hollow. If that was the case, the producers missed the mark entirely, skipping over what interesting and enlightening truisms Confucius did have (including the social responsibility of a leader to his people) to fill the time instead with militarist Red Cliff-style machinations.
And so you have people of this generation watching the movie and at best concluding that “It is a film that could be completely done without” and at worst, hating viciously on the old guy when just last year saying anything bad about him would have caused you to be human flesh searched within an inch of your life.
As Raymond Zhou of China Daily points out, “What serious scholars could never achieve in demystifying, and whom former chairman Mao Zedong, Lu Xun and all the revolutionaries failed to topple from the pedestal, the film authorities did with one simple stroke – by throwing a boomerang at Pandora, the flying island populated by athletic blue men, and instead hitting the man they had crowned with a halo.”
So we’re saying: give it a pass. Even those of you who like Confucius will be sorely disappointed.