Chinese audiences swiftly embraced Chen Kaige’s latest film, “Sacrifice,” when it became the number-one film in China in early 2011. It not only is a familiar tale for them, as it’s based on a classic Chinese opera, “Orphan of Zhao,” but the awful human sacrifice at the heart of the story no doubt resonates with an audience burdened with a governmental policy of one child per family.
In the west, the film must rely on Chen Kaige’s two-decade rule of art houses for its audiences. For this is a film his admirers will enjoy for certain, but not wildly embrace. While there are well-choreographed battles, sword fights and much violence, this costume drama has a stage-y feel with everything just-so in the art direction, costuming, props and positioning of the actors.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld might say.
The master’s touch is evident throughout a carefully calibrated drama that builds to a shocking tragedy, then settles into a revenge story of Jacobean proportions that hinges on the intricacies of family intimacy and a relationship bordering on rivalry involving one young man caught between a father and a mentor.
The central figure, played by acclaimed actor Ge You (who starred in Chen’s calling-card film “Farewell My Concubine”), is a doctor, Cheng Ying, during the Yuan Dynasty in the 5th century B.C. He delivers two babies within days. One is his own son by a wife, who has tried so hard to conceive; the other is a prince of the royal Zhao clan.
The Zhaos gets wiped out shortly after this birth by a usurper and his followers. Learning that one Zhao child has survived, the cold-blooded General Tu Angu (Wang Xueqi) launches a baby hunt reminiscent of the pharaoh’s hunt for newborn Hebrew babies in the Book of Exodus.
The prince’s mother (emerging Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing) kills herself while making herself look still pregnant so the doctor can escape with the boy. She asks the physician to raise the boy without him ever knowing his real identity.
But, mistaking Cheng’s son for the Zhao orphan, Tu kills Cheng’s infant and wife. The devastated physician undertakes to bring up the Zhao child as his own, introduces Zhao Shuo — now named Bo — into Tu’s household and plots to help the boy grow up to avenge not only his clan but Cheng’s own son and wife.
That’s a lot to heap on an innocent youth!
Things go as planed for a while. Tu embraces the role of godfather to the youth and teaches him martial skills. Cheng is so paranoid about the boy that he never lets Bo out of his sight, even preferring home schooling to sending him to a proper school.
The only one in on the secret is a former Tu subordinate (Huang Xiaoming), who get slashed in the face by his lord for letting the infant Zhao escape, thereby earning the nickname of “Scarface” from Bo, who when grown to a teen is played by Vincent Zhao.
The melodrama almost verges into comedy as the two elder men quarrel about the proper way to raise the boy — a Chinese “Odd Couple?” — while the boy chafes under the extremely close supervision of the man he believes to be his father. The key point though is that Tu becomes more of a father figure to him than his own father.
Naturally, when Cheng does reveal to the boy his identity, things don’t quite go as planned. When do children ever do as their parents say — in the Yuan Dynasty or now?
Chen thoroughly engages an audience in this melodrama with a thoughtful depiction of its characters, charismatic actors and superb period details and design that enthrall the eyes. This is not one of those martial-arts freak outs with flying stunts so instead the fights and battles remain at a human level — albeit humans with years of superb training.
The strength of “Sacrifice” lies in its stirring drama and especially in the cagey game played by Tu — who becomes aware of Bo’s real identity earlier than planned — and the aging doctor. Indeed the movie remind one of the old Chinese proverb: “He who seeks revenge should remember to dig two graves.”
Opens: July 27 2012 in theaters and On Demand (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Production: Shanghai Film Group, Shanghai Film Studio, Stellar Group, TIK Films presents a 21st Century Shengkai Films production
Cast: Ge You, Wang Xueqi, Huang Xiaoming, Fan Bingbing, Zhang Fengyi, Zhao Wenzhuo, Wang Han
Director-screenwriter: Chen Kaige
Based on the Chinese opera by: Ji Junxiang
Producers: Chen Hong, Ren Zhonglun, Qin Hong, Long Qiuyun, Tan Hong
Director of photography: Yang Shu
Production designer: Liu Qing
Music: Ma Shangyou
Choreography: Ku Huen Chiu
Costume designer: Chen Tongxun
Editor: Xu Hongyu
No rating, 128 minutes