Samuel Goldwyn Films
Director: Chen Kaige
Screenwriter: Chen Kaige, Gao Xuan, Ren Baoru, Zhao Ningyu, based on the Yuan era play “The Orphan of Zao”
Cast: Ge You, Wang Xueqi, Huang Xiaoming, Fan Bingbing, Hai Qing, Zhang Fengyi, Vencent Zhao, Bao Guo-an, William Wang
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 7/12/12
Opens: July 27, 2012
At about the time that Greeks were discussing the meaning of justice with Socrates in a country far from China, some Chinese clans were making war. Chen Kaige takes us to the 5th Century B.C., an era that finds high-school history lessons rich with discussions about the European continent. We wonder why our ambitious teens are not apprised of developments in what is now the world’s most populous country, one which presumably kept written records about the various and sundry dynasties.
Director Chen Kaige, however, has no problem bringing drama to events of the near and distant past. His “Farewell My Concubine” took us to 1924, dealing with two men with the Beijing Opera and the woman who comes between them. “The Emperor and the Assassin” located action in the pre-unified 3rd century B.C. as the heir to the kingdom of Qin seeks to dominate six other kingdoms.
“Sacrifice” is practically a chamber-piece compared to the above-mentioned. While there are several battles, nicely photographed by Yang Shu (how do they get those horses to fall and turn upside down?), key scenes are indoors. In fact “Sacrifice” is more a family drama than a rousing blockbuster. The initial hour displays a confusion of plots requiring a sorting-out in the latter part, the second hour being the more involving.
“Sacrifice” is a revenge fantasy. When General Tu Angu (Wang Xueqi) murders the region’s duke in a jealous rage (the latter married the woman that the general wanted), he blames the assassination on the Zhao clan, intending to wipe out all three hundred members of the extended family. Concocting a strategy to locate and kill the last of the Zhaos, essentially just one recently-born infant, he thinks he has murdered the right baby when he slams the little one to the floor. In truth, Dr. Cheng Ying (Ge You), who delivered the tykes, pulled a switcheroo which backfires: the doctor’s own baby is killed while the Zhao infant is brought up by the doc, who is to use the young ‘un to gain revenge against Tu. No matter that the revenge is scheduled to take place in fifteen years: he can wait.
The Zhao baby is frequently seen with bad general Tu, since Tu is the godfather, a man who treats the boy like his own son. Women have a strictly secondary role in the story, which comes down to a three-man conflict pitting the doctor against the general with the Zhao boy’s allying himself with his godfather most of the time even after the doctor explains to him that Tu killed the entire Zhao clan with the boy as the only survivor.
“Sacrifice” is not a bad offering from the prolific director but time is needed for confusion to give way to an unraveling, some of which takes place in flashbacks during the second half of the film. Performances are fine, though subtitles are sometimes difficult to read (white against a white background) and the film seems to lack the sharp focus of Chen’s previous, aforementioned works.
Unrated. 126 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B-
Overall – B