Tuesday, August 30, 2011

SACRIFICE - Chen Kaige Back in Form

SACRIFICE (period drama in Mandarin)
Cast: Ge You, Wang Xueqi, Fan Bing Bing, Huang Xiaoming, Vincent Chiu, Zhang Fengyi and William Wang
Director: Chen Kaige
Screenplay adapted from Chinese opera, Orphan of Zhao
Time: 122 mins
Rating: * * * (out of 4)

Zhang Fengyi, Hai Qing and Ge You in SACRIFICE

PREAMBLE: The big deal with this movie is that it is the work of Chen Kaige, a director famous for turning Chinese plays into cinema epics like Farewell My Concubine and Forever Enthralled. Sacrifice is adapted from a Yuan Dynasty opera, Orphan of Zhao. It was a box-office hit in China, staying at No. 1 for 16 days and earning US$27.7 million. This sum may seem paltry even by Chinese standards, but the movie should pique the interest of most Chinese cinema fans.

SYNOPSIS: Set in the Warring States period, the opening sequences show an excited Cheng Ying (played by the cool and talented Ge You) welcoming the birth of his son. As the court physician, Cheng Ying is also thrilled about delivering the child of General Zhao, whose wife Zhuangji (Fan Bing Bing) gives birth at a tragic time when the mutinous General Tuan Gu (Wang Xueqi) stages an elaborate assassination of his lord and pins the blame on General Zhao. This gives Tuan Gu the perfect excuse to wipe out the entire Zhao clan.

Fan Bing Bing and Ge You

However, the newborn Zhou prince - and heir to the throne - is placed in the care of Cheng Ying (Ge You), forcing Tuan Gu to order all babies in the city be rounded up as hostages. In a cruel twist of fate, Cheng's own baby is killed, and poor doctor is left to raise the Zhao boy, nicknamed Bo'er, as his own. As a form of revenge, Cheng schemes to have Bo'er become the godson of Tuan Gu so that he may one day learn the truth and claim the throne.

HITS & MISSES: The first half hour of the movie is totally riveting. The tale of Tuan Gu's betrayal is lavishly portrayed in detailed settings and sets. The assassination conspiracy is mind-bogglingly complicated, involving a killer dog, a poisonous insect and a case of harmless wine. These court intrigue scenes alternate with those involving Cheng and the birth of Zhuangji's baby, raising the movie's tempo and our pulses, culminating in Cheng's shocking 'sacrifice'.

Indeed, after this sort of build-up, what follows has to be somewhat of a lull. Still, director Chen Kaige tries to work up our anticipation with the 'revenge' plot involving Cheng, a rather mellowed Tuan Gu and the Zhao boy, Bo'er. The pace slackens a great deal here and it is Ge You's performance that keeps our minds from wandering off.

Chen keeps the revenge plot morally ambiguous (and not very convincing) but the sacrifice of one's son cuts deeply into China's audiences who have experienced the Government's one-child policy. Orphan of Zhao was a feudalistic propaganda that exalts loyalty to the aristocracy. Chen’s adaptation offers an interesting study on how fatherly love can be used as a tool for vengeance, to cultivate pain and regret.

THE LOWDOWN: Not Chen's best work, but highly watchable.


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