An age-old tale of vengeance
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, July 27, 2012
Vengeance is a recurring theme in Asian action movies, so the opening sequences of “Sacrifice” are familiar stuff. Only the visual flair of writer-director Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”) distinguishes this epic’s first half-hour from the many other Chinese period dramas that arrive stocked with arrows and swords, poisons and plots.
But when the preliminary slaughter of the Zhao clan ends, the sole surviving member is an infant. The boy won’t be taking revenge anytime soon. So the movie has to slow its pace, pondering the vagaries of fate and the complexities of human motivation.
Based on “The Orphan of Zhao,” a 14th-century Chinese opera, the story is set some 2,600 years ago. The Zhao family is ascendant, with members of the family in significant roles in the army, the court and elsewhere. (The queen is a Zhao.) With a new Zhao heir due any day, jealous (and childless) rival Tu’an (Wang Xueqi) unleashes an elaborate conspiracy.
Lady Zhao’s doctor, Cheng (Ge You), is also expecting a child. After Tu’an’s lieutenant, Han (Huang Xiaoming), declines to kill the newborn Zhao, Cheng ends up with two babies. Tu’an captures them, but mistakenly kills the wrong one. Cheng raises the Zhao boy as his own, grooming him to one day slay Tu’an (who’s responsible for the death of the doctor’s wife as well as his son).
Cheng contrives to enter his sworn enemy’s inner circle, reasoning that only Tu’an can teach the boy, called Bo’er, the necessary battle skills. One other person knows of this plan: Han, who turned against his former boss when Tu’an punished him harshly for failing to execute the youngest Zhao.
The big complication is that Bo’er, as he is trained by Tu’an, comes to admire the scoundrel. Add the usual adolescent rebellion against parental authority, and Bo’er may not be the right person to retaliate against Tu’an.
The movie’s latter half includes two more battle scenes, but the major action set piece is the first one. Most of the film is stately, closer to the spirit of Chen’s austerely lovely early films than to more recent ones such as “The Promise,” a botched attempt to make a crowd-pleasing martial-arts fantasy.
With its widescreen compositions and flame-illuminated interiors, “Sacrifice” is visually entrancing. Yet the movie is not just an exercise in style. The deep shadows and flickering lights befit a tale of profound secrets and shifting alliances. At the center is Ge’s portrayal of the doctor, who embodies Chen’s reinterpretation: The opera originally commended the loyalty of commoners to the elite, but this version is about the myriad sacrifices of parent for child.
Contains violence and scenes of children in peril. In Mandarin with English subtitles.