Shot By Both Sides: Chen Kaige’s Sacrifice
Sacrifice, Chen Kaige’s new movie, is now playing in San Francisco and while it’s a quality production, it seems a little dated, as well as being not quite up to the standard of past Chen flicks. But since Chen directed the epic masterpiece Farewell, My Concubine (1993), the bar for his films is pretty high. Sacrifice is certainly at least as worthwhile a watch as, say, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and most likely less insulting to your intelligence.But Sacrifice feels like a relic, caught between the old-timey expectations of international arthouse audiences and the contemporary realities of today’s Chinese film market.
My first encounter with Chen came back in the 80s when I saw Yellow Earth in New York City’s Chinatown. Chen, along with his fellow 5th generationist Zhang Yimou (who was also Yellow Earth’s cinematographer), had just busted out internationally and Yellow Earth was a huge departure from the social-realism of the Mao era. Beautiful and visually lush, with a cogent critique of China’s political and social climate, the movie was a worldwide arthouse hit and set the tone for Chinese films of the time. Chen went on to even more acclaim with Farewell, My Concubine, which famously combined Beijing Opera, 20th century Chinese history, and the divine histrionics of the immortal Leslie Cheung.
Since then Chen has directed a slew of films, though none as popular or critically beloved as FMC. Sacrifice follows in the footsteps of Chen’s most renowned flicks, but perhaps due to this it feels staid and outdated. It’s also to Chen’s disadvantage that his reputation precedes him as the director of the masterly FMC, since his films will be inevitably compared to that classic for the rest of his career.
Sacrifice is based on The Orphan of Zhao, the earliest Chinese play to be staged in Europe, and its storyline is an intricate hash of intrigue and revenge in feudal China. Set during the runup to the Warring States period, the movie follows Cheng Ying, a doctor who is caught up in court machinations. Ruthless warlord General Tu’an mercilessly slaughters his rival, General Zhao, and all 300 of Zhao’s close relatives save one, an infant son born during the chaos of the purge. Due to various byzantine plot twists, identity swaps, and other confusion, Cheng raises the surviving Zhao baby undetected in Tu’an’s court.
The first half of the movie gallops along pretty well, with court intrigue and carnage keeping things running at a brisk pace. But the film’s middle section is awfully slow and the film bogs down considerably at this point. By the end of the movie the pace picks up again, but it’s a long slog through the talky exposition in the middle section. Wang Xuiqi (who starred in Yellow Earth back in 1984) is awesome as the badass Tu’an and Ge You is also outstanding as Cheng, the doctor ground up in the court’s political gears. The secondary characters, however, are less interesting—pretty boy Huang Xiaoming (here with a decorative facial scar) is extraneous and a bit ridiculous and Fan Bing Bing adds another flower vase role to her resume. The final fight scene has some emotional heft since the characters’ relationship is well-established prior. Not so for the significant deaths earlier in the film, since those characters and their relationships are ciphers.
The costumes, art direction, and cinematography are top-notch, but throughout the film Chen makes some janky directing and editing decisions. The identity reveal of a key character is pretty botched, and Chen somewhat clumsily employs flashbacks, dissolves, and intercutting, as well as a repeated fade-to-black motif that’s more distracting than insightful.
Sacrifice is not a bad film per se but it seems a bit old-fashioned given the current state of Chinese cinema. Here in the U.S. audiences seem to think that Chinese movies are all about ponderous costumed historical allegories like Sacrifice, but in China itself the scene is pretty different, with this year’s most popular Chinese-language films to date being Wu Er-Shan’s big-budget fantasy Painted Skin 2, the WWII action comedy Guns N’ Roses, and Mission Incredible: Adventures On The Dragon’s Trail, an animated movie about a goat.
Personally, I’m much more intrigued with Caught In The Web, Chen’s latest film now playing in Asia, that looks at China’s exploding online culture, but it probably won’t see the light of day here in the U.S. for months, if at all. One of Chen’s few modern-day movies, Caught In The Web feels timely and of-the-moment and is probably way too contemporary and edgy for the staid international arthouse demographic that follows Chen. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Sacrifice, and it’s the kind of stately historical Chinese costume drama that U.S. distributors love, but its aesthetic feels as stuffy as a Merchant-Ivory melodrama in the age of Cloverfield.
UPDATE: Looks like Caught In The Web will be playing at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which is great news. Here’s hoping it leads to more Stateside screenings—are you listening, SFIFF?