Saturday, October 20, 2012
Writes Roger Ebert: In a modern China that seeks to limit families to one child, Chen Kaige's "Sacrifice" must have a deep resonance. Based on an opera set in 583 B.C., it tells a twisted story of love and revenge, based on the time-tested plot device of babies switched at birth. This substitution would have great political importance, because one of the babies is the only survivor of a powerful clan. But the scheme is a step too complex, and backfires.
It may be a spoiler to describe how that happens, but it all takes place so early in the film that the story is really about the aftermath and not the switch. We meet a doctor named Cheng Ying (Ge You), who is attending the pregnant sister of the king. A powerful general named Gen. Tu-Angu (Wang Xueqi) is angered that another general has married the sister — and that her child, if she had chosen differently, would have been his.
This leads to a massacre ordered by Tu-Angu, whose troops move through the kingdom, methodically murdering every member of the king's family, including all babies. The doctor, however, spares the life of the sister's baby. At the same time, his own wife has also had a male child. By switching the two babies, the doctor hopes to preserve the life of his own child, but the enraged general kills the wrong baby, the doctor's baby — and the survivor is the only surviving member of the clan.
Writes Maggie Lee in The Hollywood Reporter: Sacrifice, the third of Chen Kaige’s works related to the stage, after Farewell, My Concubine and Forever Enthralled, is adapted from Orphan of Zhao, the first Chinese opera to become known in Europe.
This tells of a doctor who sacrifices his son to preserve the last bloodline of a noble clan. The screen version is a revenge tragedy of Jacobean luridness with a plot so labyrinthine even the Minotaur couldn’t find its way out.
Sacrifice reigned as No. 1 at the Chinese box office for 16 days, earning an estimated $27.7 million. Beyond Chinese-speaking regions, the film must bank on Chen’s reputation in art-house circles.
Chen’s direction is his most staid yet, but the riveting story speaks for itself. The protagonists have the stature and messed-up psychology of Shakespearean heroes and villains, while the superb cast adds subtle gradations of feeling to the morally complex roles of people struggling with their conscience and self-interest.