Sacrifice: Film Review

A classical historical drama of grand passions and humanity.

"Sacrifice," the third of Chen Kaige’s works related to the stage, after "Farewell, My Concubine" and "Forever Enthralled," is adapted from "Orphan of Zhao," the first Chinese opera to become known in Europe.

ZHUHAI, China -- Sacrifice, the third of Chen Kaige’s works related to the stage, after Farewell, My Concubine and Forever Enthralled, is adapted from Orphan of Zhao, the first Chinese opera to become known in Europe.

This tells of a doctor who sacrifices his son to preserve the last bloodline of a noble clan. The screen version is a revenge tragedy of Jacobean luridness with a plot so labyrinthine even the Minotaur couldn’t find its way out.

Sacrifice reigned as No. 1 at the Chinese box office for 16 days, earning an estimated $27.7 million. Beyond Chinese-speaking regions, the film must bank on Chen’s reputation in art-house circles.

Chen’s direction is his most staid yet, but the riveting story speaks for itself. The protagonists have the stature and messed-up psychology of Shakespearean heroes and villains, while the superb cast adds subtle gradations of feeling to the morally complex roles of people struggling with their conscience and self-interest.

The film is set in the Kingdom of Jun in 583 B.C. Prime minster Zhao Tun presides over his ancient and illustrious 300-member clan. His son Shuo is a war hero who married the King’s sister Zhuangji, and they are expecting a child. Such perfect bliss is simply intolerable for their court rival Tu Angu (Wang Xueqi).

Tu’s scheme to cause the Zhao clan’s downfall is so elaborate it makes one’s head spin. It involves a mad dog, a killer mosquito fed on poison, a horse-tripping rope, a chariot with its wheels sawed off, and wine supposed to distill political magnanimity to a ruler.  All this unfolds within 20 minutes without a narrative hitch.

And that’s just the prelude to the prologue. There’s an even more twisty yarn of how Zhuangji’s infant son is rescued with the joint efforts of Zhuangji’s gynecologist Cheng Ying (Ge You); Han Jue, a general sent to kill Zhao (Huang Xiaoming); and the Zhao’s longtime ally Gongsun (Zhang Fengyi). The most crucial point here being: Cheng’s newborn son dies in the orphan’s place. So Cheng names the boy Bo and raises him to avenge Tu. He enters Tu’s household as a retainer, and Bo becomes Tu’s godson.

Although it would not hurt to condense this section, there’s no letting up of twists with Tu, Cheng, Han and Bo all trying to second-guess and outmaneuver each other. The last reel is loaded with suspense as the movie heads for an emotional finale that demonstrates the true meaning of sacrifice.

Orphan of Zhao was traditionally a feudalistic work that exalts loyalty to the aristocracy, but Chen’s adaptation is more human and less moralistic. It is more a confluence of fate with expediency that Cheng and Han become accidental altruists which makes their growing love for Bo more touching. Chen also adds complexity to the Iago-like Tu by linking his envy of Zhao, a father-to-be, to the death of his own son.

The magnitude of Cheng’s sacrifice will have deep resonance for China’s one-child families, especially in the second act, which plays like a workshop on child rearing. Bo’s ‘rich dad, poor dad’ set-up with over-protective Cheng and doting Tu is a variation on the violin prodigy’s choice between his peasant adoptive father and Svengali-like teacher in Together. The film sagely observes that no matter how parents plan and envisage their children’s future, they will act according to their own will.

There are a fair amount of bloody massacres and swordplay. Nevertheless, along with the elegant set, costume design and lush cinematography, they take a backseat to the highly charged drama. Only the music is conspicuous for its gloomy timber and whiny chorals, sounds more suitable for a Hollywood sword-and-sandal epic.

Opened: Dec. 4 in China
Production:Shanghai Film Group, Shanghai Film Studio, Stellar Group, TIK Films presents a 21st Century Shengkai Films production
Sales: Easternlight Films
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
Music: Ma Shangyou
Costume designer: Chen Tongxun
Editor: Xu Hongyu
No rating, 123 minutes