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Chen Kaige is nothing if not enigmatic. Having directed one of the all time greatest films about Chinese modern history and culture in the classic “Farewell My Concubine”, he went on to helm the risible and environmentally destructive “The Promise”, all but squandering his reputation in the process. Having edged his way back towards form a couple of years ago with the Chinese opera biopic “Forever Enthralled”, he returns again with “Sacrifice”, a character driven historical epic based upon the Yuan Dynasty play The Orphan of Zhao. The film stars top Mainland actor Ge You in the lead, backed by an illustrious supporting cast including Wang Xue Qi (“Bodyguards and Assassins”), Huang Xiao Ming (“The Message”), Fan Bing Bing (“Lost in Beijing”), and Zhang Feng Yi (“Red Cliff”). The film was a definite comeback hit for Chen, beating off fierce competition to become one of the highest earning Chinese productions of 2010.
The film begins with the envious General Tuan (Wang Xue Qi) setting in motion a complex scheme designed to eliminate the entire Zhao clan, his rivals in the court of Duke Ling. Although Tuan is successful in staging a coup and seizes power for himself, General Zhao’s wife Zhuang (Fan Bing Bing) manages to persuade local doctor Cheng Ying (Ge You) to save her newborn son before she kills herself. Unfortunately, although Cheng Ying with the help of Han Jue (Huang Xiao Ming) is able to take the child to safety, before he can get him to the house of Zhao ally Sir Gong (Zhang Feng Yi), he is forced to switch him with his own infant son. Working out that Cheng Ying was the one who escaped with the Zhao child, Tuan attacks Gong’s household, unknowingly killing the wrong baby in the process. Biding his time, the doctor takes his place in Tuan’s court, raising the boy as his own and plotting to have him take revenge when he reaches manhood.
If the plot of “Sacrifice” sounds rather convoluted, it is, though in rewarding and highly engaging fashion. Although the film has been likened to Hamlet, and does indeed have overtones of Shakespearian tragedy, it’s most likely to bring to mind Chen Kaige’s earlier work “The Emperor and the Assassin”. The two films do have a great deal in common, being complex, character driven affairs that revolve around difficult moral dilemmas and themes of responsibility, guilt, and of course, sacrifice. The film is very convincing in this respect, and sees Chen regaining his position as one of the premier storytellers of Chinese cinema, as he skilfully weaves a web of very human flaws, ambitions and nobility without ever patronising the viewer with easy answers or resorting to cheap melodrama. Thankfully, he also avoids any of the obvious nationalism or compromises which have tended to dilute some of the recent Chinese blockbusters, and the film is pleasingly intelligent and challenging.
The characters are all richly written, with Cheng Ying making for a fascinating protagonist, a man who is by no means brave or selfless, and who ends up taking an increasingly philosophical view on the events which he has become caught up in, despite the fact that his choices have cost him dearly. Even Tuan is a complicated and conflicted figure, capable of kindness as well as great ruthlessness, and though he is clearly the villain of the piece, he comes across as being fated to play the role that he does. Ge You is excellent in the lead and effectively carries the film with a deeply affecting performance, giving the film a moving emotional core, and the rest of the cast are similarly impressive.
Chen’s direction sees him adopting a slightly different style to that of his previous historical outings, combining the grounded though intricate cinematography of “Farewell my Concubine” and “Temptress Moon” with some of the visual flourishes and flashiness of “The Promise”. The film mixes the intimate and the epic to great effect, and manages to balance its action and battle scenes with its quieter and more personal aspects. This approach works very well, making it both substantial and artistic, and entertaining on a more basic and accessible level. Packing in plenty of drama and confrontations along with a number of bloody sword scenes, the film moves along at a good pace, and is gripping and exciting right through to its tough and eloquently expressed conclusion.
“Sacrifice” is not only Chen Kaige’s best film for over a decade, but is one of the best Chinese blockbusters of the last couple of years. Proving that it is possible to provide thrills and entertainment without compromising on plot or characters, it offers a powerful and thoughtful slice of tragedy that works on both an epic and intimate scale.
Kaige Chen (director) / Kaige Chen (screenplay)
CAST: Man Cheuk Chiu … Zhao Dun