Posted by Joel Martinsen on Monday, March 23, 2009 at 6:10 PM
Chow Yun-Fat is slated to play the lead in a new biopic of Confucius.
Casting an international action star as a philosopher who is generally depicted as an old man not particularly given to much movement at all has raised some eyebrows. Will we see a wire-fu Confucius, an action-packed story that takes liberties with the historical record?
Distinguished TV and stage actor Pu Cunxin announced that he had turned down the role because of script problems, and called for the public to attack anyone who dare mock the sage by turning him into a fighter.
In response, director Hu Mei denied ever approaching Pu, and then defended the film's action elements:
Chow was reportedly "moved to tears" by the script, which has gone through 23 revisions.
In the three weeks since his casting was announced, the press has been overflowing with advice for Hu Mei on how best to tell the sage's story. One recent example comes from film and drama critic Xie Xizhang (谢玺璋), who argued in the Beijing Daily the teams currently planning Confucius-related productions (Chow's film is only the most visible) should refrain from exploiting the philosopher for their own purposes:
Filming Confucius for Cash or for Myth are Both Mistakesby Xie Xizhang / BD
In recent weeks there's been a lot of news about Confucius, giving one the feeling that he really is "the most timely of sages." First, Pu Cunxin called the script for Confucius rubbish and refused the role as lead. Director Hu Mei immediately shot back that she'd never asked Pu to take the role, and questioned whether he'd even read the script: if he had, it certainly wasn't the final version. Then came the explosive news that Chow Yun-Fat would play Confucius, capturing the interest of the general public and sparking considerable debate. Further news said that Zhang Li and Han Gang would take part in Confucius projects, and that their TV dramatizations had each been given the go-ahead by SARFT. Additionally, the opera Confucius has just concluded a run at Peking University.
All this chasing after Confucius is undoubtedly linked to the overheatedclimate of the past few years. There is still lingering warmth from Yu Dan's experiences of The Analects and Li Ling's "stray dog" discussion. And the stage for promoting Confucius has only gotten larger now that the film world has gotten saddled up. This would seem to demonstrate just how keen businessmen's noses really are. To them, a mountain is not just a mountain, a river is not just a river, and Confucius is not just Confucius: they're all glittering silver, and cold, hard cash. Hence, when Confucius screenwriter Chen Han, who also wrote Red Cliffs, tells the media over and over that his script "will definitely rake in a big box-office," he's simply giving investors a palliative.
I do believe that Confucius will bring economic benefits to these people, and regardless of what they end up shooting, there'll always be crowds paying to enter the cinemas. But they won't be coming to see the people who put Confucius on screen. No, they will come for Confucius himself. This is how it has been with all major motion pictures over the past few years: they feed off the subject matter. Claiming a particular topic is like planting a money tree. As to whether this money is too hot to handle, that's something only the people who handle it can know. What I'd like to know is this: in the still of the night when you're not counting your money and you take a moment of self-reflection, does your conscience rest easy with how you're making that money?
Confucius is not easy to film, nor is he an easy role to play. So if you're going to portray him on film, then do it right. What does "right" mean? Different people have different standards. They say one thousand people will see one thousand different Hamlets, and it is the same for Confucius. Yet Confucius exceeds Hamlet in how he has been misinterpreted so many times throughout history, both willfully and unwittingly, to the point that he is now completely unrecognizable. What sort of person is Confucius? This is the first problem facing those that seek to portray Confucius on film. And at least two tendencies must be avoided. The first is commercialization, or what Pu Cunxin is worried about: that the Confucius who appears on screen will be a romantic individual, and a martial arts fighter. There are those who would "humanize" Confucius and pull him down from his saintly pedestal, and while this sounds like a good thing, it is the box-office that they unquestionably have in mind. The other tendency, which we'll call "deification" for the moment, is to film the sage that is worshipped in Confucian temples, the talented genius and model teacher who saved the world from disaster and rescued the common people from their troubles. But this individual is unlikely to be well-received by the majority of today's audiences.
I tend to feel that Confucius needs to be filmed with detachment, to film him as an interesting person possessed of knowledge, ambition, and a great deal of humanity, who fails at every turn to achieve his goals, and is frustrated and ultimately dispirited. This individual is not ordinary, nor is he simple, but his experiences are enough to affect us, to move us to sympathy. If we set this sort of person against the backdrop of the Spring and Autumn period, one of the most celebrated periods of Chinese history, then we can hope to see a truly epic film! We wait in expectation.
Xie is not the first commentator to compare Confucius to a "money tree." In 2005, culture reporter Xu Lai wrote in the The Beijing News about the practice of staging official Confucian ceremonies, ostensibly to revive traditional Chinese culture with the nebulous goal of bringing people together, but actually for more practical purposes:
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The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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