Kaige Chen’s Sacrifice is one of those films that is bound to be somewhat mis-marketed. The cover of its DVD features a furious, blood-smeared warrior, double-wielding swords with ominous words about how “a child will decide the fate of a nation” plastered above him. It’s tempting to wade into the film thinking you’re about to experience a 13 Assassins-esque samurai epic of violence and death.
That’s not quite what you’ll get, but that doesn’t make the film any less satisfying. Sacrifice is a tale of revenge, a revenge that spans years and requires the kind of dedication and simmering fury that few people possess. It takes place during the Zhao Dynasty era of the Jin State, a few hundred years BCE. It’s a often beautiful and complex film that takes an immense amount of patience to endure. The film starts off with a complicated plot to overthrow the Zhao regime by General Tu Angu (Wang Xueqi), resulting in the near-extermination of the entire line of Zhaos, except for one newborn babe who was secretly smuggled out of the city by the simple doctor and herbalist who delivered him. The child is saved, but at a terrible price both by his true parents, as well as the doctor himself, who loses his own family as a result.
The doctor, Cheng Ying (Ge You) vows vengeance on Tu, and raises the young child as his own with the intention of eventually revealing his identity and having the child murder the general who destroyed both families. If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. In fact, the opening 30 minutes of the film are immensely complicated, often confusing — and utterly riveting. The overthrow of the Zhao regency is a vicious, bloody, spectacular and wild affair, a palace coup unlike any you’ve ever seen. It’s rare that you see an empire overthrown using wild dogs, pit traps, poisonous insects, armies of archers, and some truly brutal swordplay. Yet strangely, that opening salvo is the diametric opposite of the remainder of the film. What ensues is a at times painstakingly slow, contemplative film that’s not just about a 15-year plot to avenge a man’s family. It’s also a sweeping, emotional and melodramatic saga that deals with honor, family, regret, pride, and every other theme possible for a period epic of its ilk.
Kaige Chen is no stranger to vast sagas of family and empire, having also directed the breathtaking Farewell, My Concubine. And while Sacrifice is nowhere near the emotional and atmospheric juggernaut that Concubine is, it’s still a unique and stirring project. Despite it’s expansive and intricately political opening, full of Machiavellian plotting and nations rising and falling, it’s a quiet, intimate affair for most of its two hours, filled with lengthy stretches of dialogue that drip with drama and pathos. At times, it’s almost too much — Cheng and his co-conspirator Han Jue (Huang Xiaoming ) spend so much time waxing philosophically about their plot and the nature of revenge that you start to feel like you’re watching the same scenes shot in different settings. What keeps it interesting is that throughout the years of plotting, the child is left ignorant of their plans (and in fact unwittingly becomes the godson of the general who slew his parents), creating a whole new family dynamic and unheralded complexity.
While that child adds a layer of interest to the film, he also almost brings it to its knees at times. The film is full of powerful performances, particularly the three leads of Ge You, Wang Xueqi and Huang Xiaoming. While all of the film’s female roles are bloodily dispatched early on, their performances are equally strong, making their early departure that much more disappointing. What occasionally kills the pacing of the film are some borderline-dreadful performances by the two children tasked with portraying the orphan of the Zhao dynasty. The film focuses on two portions of the child’s life — when he’s somewhere between 8-10 years old, and the film’s conclusion when he is 15 years old. Both actors for the respective eras are painfully out of their league, and since the dialogue has a tendency to stagger and stumble over its own absurdity and pomposity at times, having it delivered by an overwrought, lesser talent makes it all the more painful.
Sacrifice is melodrama in the truest sense of the word. There are some logical leaps that you’ll have to bull through, a tendency to repeat itself at times, and some youthful performances that elicit the occasional cringe. Yet there’s much to love as well, including some stunning cinematography as well as set and costume design. The adult acting is top notch, filled with quavering tension and heartrending fury. But what should keep you engaged is a slow-burning, densely plotted and satisfyingly complex story that requires your utmost patience and attention in order to appreciate it — even if you don’t always enjoy it.
Sacrifice was released this week on DVD and VOD.