HKIFF 2011: SACRIFICE Review

James Marsh, Asian Editor

The latest film from prominent Chinese director Chen Kaige is an epic tale of betrayal and revenge set during the Warring States period over two thousand years ago. Wang Xueqi stars as Tuan Gu, a mutinous general who engineers the assassination of his master and frames it on rival General Zhou. This gives Tuan the perfect excuse to wipe out the entire Zhou clan and assume control of the entire region. However, the newborn Zhou prince - and heir to the throne - is placed in the protection of court doctor Cheng Ying (Ge You), forcing Tuan to order all babies in the city be rounded up by his troops. In a cruel twist of fate, Cheng's own baby is killed, believed to be Zhou's, and Cheng is left to raise the boy, Bo'er, as his own.

After Cheng's wife is also killed in the massacre, only one other person knows Bo'er's true identity, Tuan's former lieutenant Han Jue (Huang Xiaoming), who was cast out by his master for letting the baby escape. Cheng and Han both harbour their own grievances against Tuan, but are resolved to see Bo'er fulfill his destiny and reclaim his throne when the time is right. Cheng retains the position of court physician under the new regime in order to stay close to his foe, but as the years pass and Bo'er grows up, he bonds with Tuan and begins to favour him over his own "father."

After making a name for himself around the world with films such as FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE and THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN, director Chen Kaige's credibility was soured slightly, in my eyes at least, by the bizarre and at times extremely poorly judged fantasy THE PROMISE. What was billed as the pan-Asian epic to end them all baffled audiences with its cluttered blending of rampant CGI, fantasy storytelling and ill-conceived comedy, which left its star-studded cast floundering. He returned to the fruitful world of Chinese opera for the little-seen but more positively received FOREVER ENTHRALLED and has now more than got his groove back with SACRIFICE, a gorgeously-staged and incredibly well-acted tale of tragedy and revenge on an almost Shakespearean level, based on the famous 14th Century play, The Orphan of Zhou.

The opening act of SACRIFICE quickly sets up the rivalry and resentment within the court of Chancellor Peng, a smug and unlikable man who has clearly never been near a battlefield yet lauds his authority over hardened warriors such as General Tuan. Within minutes, Tuan has put his elaborate coup d'etat into motion, which involves deadly mosquitoes, specially trained dogs and poisoned wine to give the appearance that Peng has been assassinated by his visiting son-in-law, General Zhou Dun (Vincent Chiu). The city erupts into a full blown massacre, as Tuan's troops immediately beset Zhou's forces and by the time the dust eventually settles, the entire clan, including Zhou's heavily pregnant wife (Fan Bing Bing), is dead. Tuan soon discovers, however, that she was able to give birth in time and the city is torn apart looking for the last remaining clan member.

I have never been much of a fan of Ge You in the past, even while appreciating his talents as an actor, but as the grief-stricken, scheming and perennially conflicted Cheng Ying I have unearthed a newfound respect for the man. It is a hugely accomplished performance, as time and again his attempts to keep his family safe fail miserably and he must endure tragedy after tragedy at the hands of a man he has no way of escaping. Years must slowly creep by before he can indulge, and hopefully, extinguish the hatred and thirst for vengeance that has grown within him - in many ways filling the cavernous void left by the murder of his own son. Even at the film's opening, it is remarked that Cheng Ying is already too old to become a father, and the events that follow order him to be not only that, but also a conspirator, avenger and harbinger of a terrible truth, even as he approaches the twilight years of his own life.

Ge You is finely matched onscreen by Wang Xueqi, the man who stole the show in last year's BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS from the likes of Donnie Yen and Nicolas Tse. Tuan is introduced as a conniving, treasonous villain, content to kill women, children and whomever else stands in his way of usurping total control. However, time softens the general, mostly due to the doting, almost pitiful way he takes young Bo'er under his wing. Early on we learn that Tuan's own offspring - and wife it would seem - died young and he is anxious for a son to continue his legacy. He teaches Bo'er how to fight, but also that it is better to be cautious and never trust anyone if you are to succeed in life. Cheng Ying is left to look on fearfully as Tuan's influence over the young boy grows ever stronger.

Purists have noted that Chen deviates from the source material in the final act, but the changes ring true to the story that has preceded them and in no way does the film's outcome feel in any way compromised. In truth, there is little to find of fault in SACRIFICE. It manages to be moving, exciting and even shocking at times, looks absolutely stunning in its recreation of China's Summer and Autumn Period and features perhaps the greatest performance of Ge You's career to-date. The script is refreshingly free of analogies to contemporary politics and there is no nationalistic grandstanding anywhere to be seen. Instead what we get is a rich, opulent and grandiose piece of Cinema from a director who seems very much back on track. 

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