Chinese director Kaige Chen is no stranger to historical drama. He had an international break-through with Farewell My Concubine (1993), and his spectacular The Emperor and the Assassin (1998) became a huge success in China, and shown at film festivals around the world. I still remember the heart-wrenching scene of the blind girl who tells the assassin that she doesn’t want to live anymore if she can’t hear her brother’s singing every morning. It chokes me up even now. Chen also provided a satisfying historical action/fantasy spectacle with 2005’s The Promise, a collaborative effort between China, the United States and South Korea.
2010 saw Chen once again turning to an adaptation of historical events with Sacrifice – the account of how the last descendant of the influential Zhao family is saved by a doctor, who sacrifices his own son in order to preserve the Zhao family line. He also sacrifices his peace of mind.
The power-hungry minister Tu’an Gu (Wang Xueqi) wipes out the reigning Zhao Prime Minister and his entire clan, but the operation is carried out just as the Prime Minister’s wife is giving birth to their son, and the doctor manages to smuggle the child back to his house. The scam is quickly discovered, however, and Tu’an Gu orders his soldiers to search the entire town for infant boys so he can find the last son of Zhao and kill him. This involves holding all of the town’s 300 infants hostage in order to flush out the son of Zhao. The doctor, Cheng Bing (Ge You), and his wife has an infant son themselves, and through complex deceits they end up convincing Tu’an Gu that their son is the Zhao heir. Tu’an Gu then brutally throws the child to the floor, killing it.
Cheng Bing and his wife then raise the Zhao son as their own, naming him Cheng Bo. Cheng Bing promised the mother of the child that he would raise him in obscurity, never putting him into danger. But Cheng Bing is so consumed with thoughts of revenge that he does the opposite: He seeks employment in the court of new Prime Minister Tu’an Gu, and, somewhat improbably, raises Cheng Bo as Tu’an Gu’s godson, planning to tell him the truth when he comes of age, so that the Zhao heir will kill Tu’an Gu in righteous retribution.
Things do not go according to plan. Cheng Bo becomes very attached to Tu’an Gu, and when he is told that he is in fact the Zhao heir, he considers it a joke at first and is subsequently angry with his foster father. The moral of the story is quite clear: revenge is a bad idea, and will backfire on the schemer. Cheng Bing was not doing the right thing in seeking revenge; he should have let sleeping dogs lie. In fact, he acts quite monumentally stupidly on more than one occasion, and this actually hurts the believability of the plot. Cheng Bing is not shown as a particularly passionate person, so the whole revenge theme never rings true.
And then there is the matter of the missing action. Most Chinese and Hong Kong movies of this sort have plenty of action and martial arts in the story, so as to spice it up a bit (or more than bit!), and I have to say I missed it in Sacrifice. In a way it is a fresh breath to see a Chinese historical movie where the action – what little there is of it – is more realistic, and amid the flurry of stylized and slightly silly martial arts that most Asian action movies are full of, it is actually salient to remember Sacrifice as a rare example of relative realism. But in the absence of a sufficiently engaging storyline, one finds oneself clamoring for the kind of entertainment value that some well-placed kung fu action scenes would have provided, and this is very much the case here.
Since most martial arts movies are based on a simple revenge plot, Sacrifice seems to be a specific statement against that kind of movies; it is anti-revenge and anti-action. Such a movie could have worked well, and the actors are doing a nice job of it, but the story and the way it conveys its messages never really kick into high gear. It is an above-average movie, but it should have been better.
Sacrifice was released on DVD in the UK on May 27, 2013.
Director: Kaige Chen
Cast: Ge You, Wang Xueqi, Hai Qing, Bingbing Fan, Zhao Wen Hao, Vincent Zhao and others.
Runtime: 128 min.