Despite having been a major name in Chinese cinema since leading the so-called ‘Fifth Generation’ that revitalised film in China after the Cultural Revolution, Chen Kaige’s more recent career has been, it must be said, something of a disappointment. Since winning the Palme d’Or in 1993 for the epic, if painful, journey through China’s recent history Farewell My Concubine, Chen has found it difficult to reach the same heights again. His most recent film to hit the UK in a high profile manner, The Promise (2005), received largely mixed reviews as, on the one hand, many felt that Chen had moved too far into the mainstream and the film lacked the insight of his previous work while others lamented that even the simple wu xia plot was too confusing and lacked sufficient cohesion to allow the audience to fully embrace its fantasy world.
With Sacrifice, Chen once again revisits China’s historical past but this time through the prism of literature. Taking as his starting point the classic piece of Ancient Chinese drama The Orphan of Zhao, one of the few Chinese plays to be widely known and performed in the West, Chen comes back to his recurring themes of fathers and sons and the brutality of political conquest.
General Tu has had an exemplary military career but has been constantly passed over for honours, including crucially for the hand of the King’s sister. Fed up with being laughed at and belittled Tu takes matters into his own hands and decides to take out the King and his rival General Zhao - husband to the King’s sister who is currently carrying Zhao’s child, which would be heir presumptive seeing that the King has no children of his own. However, the news of Zhao’s death reaches his wife’s ears whilst she is being examined by her doctor and the two hatch a plan to save the child’s life. Though Tu realises the ruse and begins to search for the child, Doctor Cheng manages to ensure the child’s safety even though it entails him having to make an immense personal sacrifice that will go on to colour the rest of his life with an extreme bitterness. Cheng raises the child as his own with the intention that he will one day take back his name and avenge the massacre of the Zhao, but the boy starts to become close to General Tu and perhaps regards him as more of a father than Cheng. What the boy will do when he finally learns his true identity and the circumstances of his birth remains to be seen, but it certainly isn’t going to be an easy or a straight forward choice.
The film gets off to a roaring start as Tu plots rebellion and Cheng tries desperately to save the life of the orphaned baby boy, but predictably it can’t quite keep up the momentum as time passes and the child grows older. Perhaps unsurprisingly there are times where the film takes on a slightly theatrical feeling as its large themes take centre stage on an increasingly intimate canvas, yet the few action scenes there are within the film are captured with thoroughly cinematic flair. The film’s biggest problem is dealing with the passage of time - where a change of scene and costume might provide enough of a dramatic break for the audience to just accept a jump forward in a theatre, in a film it’s perhaps a step too far. Part of this problem is that neither of the actors who play the older versions of the orphan are particularly engaging, which makes it a little more difficult to invest in his story. However, it is Ge You’s stunning performance as the decent yet understandably damaged doctor which holds the film together and provides the much needed focus for the second half of the film.
It’s Cheng’s internalised conflict that really comes to the fore here. Though in one sense the orphan is merely a tool in Cheng’s complicated and extremely long-term plan to get revenge against Tu, in another he is a father to this boy who’s both a substitute and painful reminder for his own son and the life he might have lived. As he’s lived with him and raised him as his own, it’s inevitable that he would come to develop the natural feelings any father has for his son - whether by birth or otherwise. It hurts him doubly therefore when the boy seems to prefer the company of Tu, the very man he should despise, to that of the man he believes to be his father. It’s a drama of truly epic proportions which encompasses such themes as the futility of vengeance, the effect of oppressive regimes and personal tragedies on otherwise decent men and the eternal conflict between fathers and their sons.
Sacrifice might not quite be Chen Kaige’s return to form - it isn’t quite on a par with Farewell my Concubine - but it is thankfully a step in the right direction away from the disappointing performance of his more recent output. Though it does undoubtedly begin to unravel slightly from its midway point, in Sacrifice Chen has crafted a powerful and emotionally satisfying drama