子日：岁寒，然后知松柏之后凋也 — 论语 九：二十八
The Master said, ‘Only when the cold season comes is the point brought home that the pine and the cypress are the last to lose their leaves.’ — Analects IX.28 (Lau trans.)
Some films or books are fascinating more because of what they imply than what they are in themselves. Not everyone is fascinated in this way. Perhaps it is the definition of an [armchair] critic.
I remember, for instance, the film What The Bleep Is Happening quite clearly dividing my friends into a large, rationalist, hater camp and a smaller, trippy, New Age fan camp. I agreed with all the rationalist arguments except the worth of the film – it was an intriguing insight into the fetal stage of a new religion, a kind of Citified Liberal Hinduism.
Hu Mei’s (胡玫) film Confucius, released this year, is a similar sort of piece. It’s fascinating, but more for co-textual reasons than as a spectacular realisation of a cinematic idea. It’s a very public grappling with one the classics of world literature, and central figure of what was once China’s civic religion, and who is still a central figure outside the mainland.
Mao Zedong declared “We no longer need Confucius”, or at least Alice Goodman had him sing it, and he launched a purge to that effect. Today the CCP finds Confucius rather more useful. A society of thrifty prosperity seems worth promoting over the income extremes and materialism of the last few boom decades. It’s also a way of reaching out to the Chinese societies at the edge of the nation of the PRC and beyond. John King Fairbank described HK, Taiwan, through Singapore and to the Chinese diaspora as Maritime China, and almost all of those societies maintained Confucianist and Taoist traditions with much less interruption than on the communist-run mainland. So whether it’s a matter of hands across the Taiwan Strait or expanding the soft power heft of Greater China, Confucius seems a goer. They even got a Hakka star from Hong Kong, Chow Yun-fat, to play the lead. The film was originally slated for release on the 60th anniversary of the PRC, which shares a birthday with Confucius (or at least the one traditionally observed).
For a screenwriter, or propagandist, Confucius presents a challenge. Confucius the historical person is a different, but not distinct, figure from the icon at the centre of Confucianism the tradition. As Confucianism became more and more important as a civic religion of the successive imperial dynasties, the stories and histories attributed to him became grander, more elaborate, and more removed from the humanist philosophy he founded. For example, the best historical evidence we have is that Confucius never rose above the rank of police commissioner of the pre-imperial state of Lu. By a few centuries after his death, he was remembered as its prime minister. Then various emperors posthumously appointed him a Marquis.
Instead of the mythic figure people may be more familiar with, the writers chose to focus mostly on the historical figure. (IMDB and CMDB leave the writers anonymous.) He may be a more appealing figure to moderns – more secular and less of a comic book hero. But the historical record is very thin. Almost the only reliable document about Master Kong is The Analects of Confucius, sayings collected by his students. There is nothing like, say, the nice narrative arc of the Christian Gospels to work with. It’s more like trying the write a movie based on the Book of Proverbs, or Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.
In the end the writers do stray a little from the material for dramatic emphasis, particularly at the start – we get human sacrifice (by the bad guys) and a diplomacy scene which is more Romance of the Three Kingdoms than the Spring and Autumn Period, but all pretty much within the scope of dramatic license.
More interesting are the scenes of the King of Lu holding court in pavilion almost like a Greek agora, or a small parliament. Here we see Confucius cutting and thrusting his way to argumentative victory, be it a judicial or policy debate. This is true to form in that it was a period where intellectual and philosophical debate flowered, analogous to the Greek classical period, and spawning as many great thinkers. I couldn’t tell you how much of it actually happened at court – rather less than is shown here, I suspect. But it’s intriguing that the arguments are far more zesty than anything in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, during sittings of China’s massive nominal parliament. They’re more zesty than Question Time in the Singapore Parliament for that matter, a body with much practical lawmaking power, but not many opposition members. Confucius wields power as police commissioner – minister of law here – and then takes on some (historically shaky) further powers for 100 days. There are weird echoes of the first hundred days of FDR and other American presidents, as well as of the Hundred Days of Reform in the late Qing and the hundred schools of philosophy of Confucius’ time. This was the allusion in the poem that Mao used in the Hundred Flowers Campaign, arguably a prelude to the Cultural Revolution; 百花齐放，百家争鸣: Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred thoughts contend.
Though it takes a bit of a dramatic license, this first half is also the more coherent. Confucius spent a number of years as a wandering sage, the script plausibly suggesting it was related to political manouevring at the Lu court. Though walking the earth, as it were, has plenty of narrative tradition, Confucius was less roving kung fu vigilante and more roving civil service tutor. Again, this is harder to dramatize, and during this second half the writers give in to the temptation to have the protagonist utter gnomic quotes from the Analects mid-sentence.
Confucius didn’t do so well with critics or at the box office, where it competed with Avatar, and there were reports of the latter being more politically controversial. Does this mean the CCP is out of touch in returning to a 2300 year old philosopher in an era of raves on the Great Wall of China? Well, perhaps, but my guess is James Cameron can out-muscle anyone when it comes to mass spectacle. The phenomenon of politicians’ public tastes being more po-faced than their constituents is not unknown to democracies, after all, though they tend to produce rather less state funded and state sanctioned film. Hu Mei’s next project is Dreams in Red Mansion, a capital-C classic novel with the whiff of the schoolroom about it. It seems she is seen as a safe pair of hands. The operatic and well known plot of Dreams should have an easier screenplay to deal with than the watchable jumble of Confucius.
I’m glad to see Confucius the thinker survive the brutal winter of the twentieth century, and begin to emerge from the strictures of the rigid social structures given his name. Yet how can one convey the austere aesthetics at the heart of Confucian philosophy in such a visual medium as film? In The Analects the sense of justice is tied to a sense of harmonius music, rites and names. The closest we have here is a scene like a Spring and Autumn music video, complete with extended Master Kong zither solo. Can you make a historically accurate, intellectually interesting, broadly appealing movie about a philosopher? Maybe. But this isn’t it.