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Sacrifice (2012)
Movie Reviews

Sacrifice (2012)

Difficult to interpret; a didactic vengeance fable that plays up the contrivances for maximum melodramatic effect, ultimately delivering a message intended to teach the audience a lesson.

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The premise of Sacrifice does not sit well with me, but then again, perhaps that was the intention. Taking place in ancient China, it tells the melodramatic story of a man who uses his adopted son as a means to seek restitution of the death of his biological son; on the basis of the movie’s emotional and fatalistic ending, it’s quite possible that the film was supposed to be broadly moralistic in much the same way as fairy tales or other such fables. But I have no way of knowing if this is actually the case. Truth be told, I’m just clinging to hope. If the intention was to somehow glorify or downplay the actions of the main character, if we’re meant to view him as some kind of hero, then something went horribly wrong somewhere along the way. To keep my temper in check, I will go forth on the assumption that the film is indeed a cautionary tale with a moral.

Adapted from the ancient Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao, we open, as many melodramas do, with personal and political tensions that ultimately lead to tragedy. We meet General Tu Angu (Wang Xueqi), a treacherous man who plots to end the reign of the powerful Zhao clan. He successfully poisons the duke (Peng Bo), frames the chancellor (Bao Guo’an) and the chancellor’s son (Vincent Zhao) for it, and ultimately oversees the elimination of all 300 members of the clan. At the same time, we meet the duke’s sister, Princess Zhuang (Fan Bingbing), who has just given birth to a boy named Zhao Wu. Accepting her fate, the Princess entrusts her son to her physician, Cheng Ying (Ge You), who was supposed to give him to a friend of the Zhao family. Her instructions were simple: Her son must never know his real name, nor his past or his enemies. She wants him to live a normal life.

A complicated twist of fate inexorably alters this plan. As it turns out, Cheng Ying and his wife have a newborn son of their own, and General Tu, now aware that the Zhao baby has escaped execution, has decreed that the gates to the city be sealed and that all the newborn babies be rounded up. Long story short: Zhao Wu and baby Cheng are switched, resulting in the former being spared and the latter being slain at the hands of Tu. The Zhao family friend and Cheng Ying’s wife also fell victim to Tu’s wrath. Thus Cheng Ying is left to raise Zhao Wu as his own son. But he broods over his loss and swears vengeance on Tu. Essentially, his plan is to use Zhao Wu as his weapon; he will introduce him to Tu under the pretense that he’s his actual son, allow Zhao Wu and Tu to grow close, and ultimately reveal to Zhao Wu that Tu murdered his family. His hope is that Zhao Wu will be so full of hate that he will kill Tu on the spot.

For many years, all goes according to plan. We see Zhao Wu grow, first into a rambunctious child (Wang Han) who Cheng Ying refuses to let out of his sight, then into a teenage warrior (Zhao Wenhao). We see the boy grow closer to Tu, who believes the orphaned Zhao is dead, and distant from Cheng Ying. We see Cheng Ying form a friendship – or, more accurately, an alliance – with Tu’s former subordinate Han Jue (Huang Xiaoming), who was present when Princess Zhuang gave her son to Cheng Ying and whose face was scarred by Tu in a fit of anger. We see the younger version of Zhao Wu rebel against Cheng Ying’s overprotectiveness and demand that he be allowed to go to school. Does Cheng Ying love Zhao Wu? That’s difficult to say; although he does occasionally reveal some paternal instincts, it’s hard to imagine how you can love someone and yet persist in using them to satisfy your own need for vengeance.

Now do you see why this film makes me so uneasy? Its plot depends almost entirely on a heartbroken man manipulating and lying to an orphaned boy out of anger. I have to believe that the purpose of this film is not to venerate Cheng Ying, but rather to speak out against his method of revenge. If that wasn’t the case, if I’m interpreting the film incorrectly, then there’s really no excuse for it beyond the superficial levels of narrative and technique. This is despite the fact that director/co-writer Chen Kaige has been personally vested in father/son stories since denouncing his own father, the filmmaker Chen Huai’ai, after joining the Red Guards as a teenager during the decade-long Cultural Revolution. It was a decision he would later regret deeply.

My reservations notwithstanding, I am grateful that the visual appeal of Sacrifice depends not on the meaningless spectacle of martial arts but on production design, art direction, costume design, and makeup. I’ve repeatedly admitted an innate resistance to the martial arts genre, which relies on choreography rather than plot; this movie shows restraint in that regard, reserving all scenes of stylized violence for when they’re absolutely necessary. As for the plot, I appreciate that it’s dramatic and character driven, although I’m unsure about how it’s supposed to be interpreted. If it is in fact the didactic vengeance fable I believe it to be, then the film is a success, playing up the contrivances for maximum melodramatic effect and ultimately delivering a message intended to teach the audience a lesson.

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Samuel Goldwyn Films


About the Author: Chris Pandolfi