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July 26, 2012


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Zhao shi gu er
Chen Kaige - 2010
Samuel Goldwyn Films

I was hoping that Sacrifice would mark a return to form for Chen Kaige. It's a return to U.S. screens, if nothing else. Chen's last film was Forever Enthralled (2008), which from the clips I've seen had Chen return to the subject of the Chinese Opera, the basis for his most popular film, Farewell, My Concubine. No one has been enthralled enough to even provide that film with a stateside DVD release. Before that, there was The Promise, heavily edited from its original running time, and released when the bottom fell out on Chinese epics trying to cash in on the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The story isn't entirely unique, yet the film might have been more effective had Chen trusted his story more, rather than letting some elliptical editing and special effects get in the way. The film is based on the 13th Century Chinese plays "The Orphan of Zhao". A feudal lord's prank backfires, and a top general, Tu'an Gu, is forced to take the blame. Seething already at taking a back seat to the lord's brother-in-law, Zhao, Tu'an Gu creates an elaborate plot to frame Zhao for killing the lord, in turn decreeing that all Zhao family members are to be killed. Zhao's wife, Zhuang Ji, entreats her physician, Cheng, to save her newborn baby, the last surviving member of the Zhao family. Cheng does so, but at the expense of the life of his own baby son. With the baby raised as his son, Cheng concocts his own plan for revenge.

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Nothing is entirely clear cut. Revenge and loyalty, whether familial or political, cut both ways. Tu'an Gu is not entirely villainous while Cheng is not entirely virtuous. The two men act out a battle of wits, with Cheng acting as Tu'an's physician. During this time, the boy, named Bo, is in a sense raised by both men, with Tu'an referred to as "Godfather" by the boy he assumes is Cheng's natural son.

The film might have been more effective had Chen allowed for a straight-forward, chronological narrative, as well as the presence of one of China's most popular stars, Ge You. Instead, Chen feels the need to gussy things up with some unnecessary cross cutting between past and present. One of the big battle scenes is shot and edited in such a way that there is no clear sense of the action, as if Chen has decided to make the mistakes of too many western filmmakers, rather than do what so many Chinese language filmmakers do right. A bit of slow motion here, and some acrobatics there add to the diminishing returns. Someone like John Woo or Peter Chan finds the balance between the epic and the intimate. With the exception of Emperor and the Assassin, Chen's best work has been the smaller scale Temptress Moon and Together.

Sacrifice has proven to be a commercial return for Chen where it was the third most popular film of the year. The two films more popular, Let the Bullets Fly and If You are the One 2, also starred Ge You. For those still unfamiliar with him, Ge You combines the star power that Tom Hanks had until recently, with the kind of everyman look of Ernest Borgnine. Sacrifice serves as a better showcase for Ge's talents than Let the Bullets Fly where he was overshadowed by Jiang Wen and Chow Yun-Fat. Still, the film made me feel that Chen Kaige, once part of the vanguard of mainland Chinese cinema, has allowed himself to instead chase after filmmaking trends.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 26, 2012 08:59 AM