New York Premiere
123 minutes, in Mandarin with English subtitles
Directed by: Chen Kaige
Starring: Ge You, Wang Xueqi, Huang Xiaoming, Fan Bingbing, Vincent Zhao
Film Society of Lincoln Center
Tuesday, July 3 @ 8:30pm (buy tickets)
Ever since Farewell My Concubine way back in 1993, Chen Kaige’s movies have felt beautiful but empty, all dressed up but with no place to go. Finally, however, he’s come home. In Sacrifice he’s toned down the epic window dressing and made a movie that’s practically a chamber piece dealing in emotions that grip your heart like a bear trap and won’t let go. It’s his best film in almost 20 years, and Chinese audiences responded in kind, making it the number one movie at the box office when it was relased.
Based on a real life incident in the Spring and Autumn Period (about 600 BC), SACRIFICE is about a common doctor who loses everything as he tries to save the last child born to a noble bloodline. The Zhao family have the king’s ear, much to the dismay of General Tu, who craves power. In a smoothly executed coup, General Tu’s clan wipes out the 300 members of the Zhao family in one bloody massacre, all except for a newborn child just delivered by the gynecologist, Cheng Ying (played by Ge You, If You Are the One, Let the Bullets Fly). Knee deep in blood, General Tu knows that one Zhao infant is still alive and so he seals and searches the city in a tense series of escalating scenes. Ge You brings the infant home and tries to pull a switcheroo with his own child, but it only results in the destruction of his entire family, leaving him with nothing but the Zhao family baby.
After that opening, which is 50 tension-inducing minutes full of sudden reversals and whiplash-inducing plot twists, the movie becomes a Jacobean revenge tragedy as Cheng Ying becomes an advisor to General Tu, who unwittingly adopts the Zhao family baby as his godchild. The story unfolds over the decades as these three men develop deep bonds of love with each other, and as the audience knows that at least one of them has to die. Based on a 13th Century Chinese opera, The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Zhao, which was the first Chinese opera translated into a European language, this emotionally rich movie is a return to greatness for Chen Kaige. It feels like the kind of tragedy Shakespeare would have written, if only he’d been Chinese.