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Sacrifice     Sacrifice

(left) Ge You, and (right) Fan Bing-Bing in Sacrifice.

Chinese: 趙氏孤兒  
Year: 2010  
Director: Chen Kaige
Producer: Chen Hong, Qin Hong
Writer: Chen Kaige, Ji Junxiang (original play)
Cast: Ge You, Wang Xueqi, Huang Xiaoming, Fan Bing-Bing, Hai Qing, Zhang Fengyi, Vincent Zhao Wen-Zhou, Zhao Wenhao, Bao Guoan, William Wang, Peng Bo
The Skinny: A sharply-realized period drama, Sacrifice represents a fine return to form for director Chen Kaige. The second half of the film stalls compared to the strong first half, but result is still quality, in large part due to star Ge You.
by Kozo:

Sacrifice gets off to a phenomenal start. The film quickly involves the audience in its tense tale of revenge and mistaken identity before building to an emotional mid-climax that could put most movies’ endgames to shame. The rest of the film doesn’t live up to the very strong first half, but the result is a Chinese costume drama that’s still head-and-shoulders above similar, more popular fare. Based on the ancient play The Orphan of Zhao, Chen Kaige’s film tells of a coup taking place in the state of Jin. Ambitious general Tu’an Gu (Wang Xueqi) hatches an elaborate plot against ruling Duke Ling (Peng Bo), whose sister Princess Zhuang (Fan Bing-Bing) is married to the heroic and handsome general Zhao Shuo (Zhao Wen-Zhou).

Executing his plan, Tu’an assassinates Duke Ling, pins the crime on Zhao Shuo and then exterminates every last member of the Zhao clan. Prior to her own death, Princess Zhuang gives birth to Zhao Shuo’s son, imploring her doctor Cheng Ying (Ge You) to hide her baby – and Cheng does so by asking his wife (Hai Qing) to switch the Zhao orphan for their own newborn son. But Tu’an discovers that the child exists and snatches the kingdom’s newborns, threatening to kill them one by one unless someone brings the missing Zhao orphan forth. Cheng Ying would, but since Tu’an has unknowingly grouped the Zhao orphan with all the other newborns, the odd child out is actually Cheng Ying’s own son – and if Cheng Ying brings him forth Tu’an will surely have the child killed.

Sacrifice is best viewed with zero prior knowledge, so if you hate spoilers, stop reading now. Still here? Okay, then. Cheng Ying’s predicament is a damnable one, as he must potentially choose between the life of his son and that of the Zhao orphan. This conflict represents only the film’s first half, but it’s an exceptionally strong start that sharply places its characters into increasingly tense and fragile situations. The second half is less acute and more cerebral, as Cheng Ying begins a long-gestating revenge plot against Tu’an, a process that takes years and plenty of thinly-disguised emotions. Under Cheng Ying’s watch, Tu’an becomes close to Cheng Ying’s son, not realizing that the child is actually the Zhao orphan, who Cheng Ying one day intends to use as his instrument of revenge. While the film’s first half clearly defines its characters, the second half blurs the lines between villain and hero.

The story is, for lack of a better word, largely Shakespearean, combining vengeance, fate, irony, and tragedy into a very potent mix. Chen Kaige goes for situations over scale; there’s a budget here, but Chen never seems to show it off, keeping the film to smaller character scenes in a few locations and only occasionally expanding to larger chase or action sequences. The situations and the characters are the stars here, and Chen has the right actors working for him. Wang Xueqi is both detestable and pitiable as the conniving Tu’an, creating a villain who’s both powerful and very small. In supporting roles, Fan Bing-Bing, Zhang Fengyi (as a Zhao sympathizer) and Huang Xiaoming (as Cheng Ying’s lone confidante) are excellent, though Zhao Wenhao – who plays the teenaged Zhao orphan – is a weak link. Leading everyone is Ge You, who underplays magnificently as the understandably embittered Cheng Ying.

The second half of Sacrifice is a bit of a letdown. The tense cat-and-mouse game between Cheng Ying and Tu’an Gu, with the naïve and impulsive Zhao orphan trapped in between, is a strong situation but the drama gets a bit muddled. The reveals and reversals grow too numerous, some characters end up losing credibility, and the climax merely resolves instead of satisfying. Too much is going on and too much of it is internal, and Zhao Wenhao and even Wang Xueqi ultimately have a tough time defining their roles. Still, Ge You holds the film together with his marvelous, fully-realized performance, and the end is only weak because it has such a tough first act to follow. Above all, Chen Kaige creates acute tension and drama that should elicit a strong reaction from audiences. After Chen's overblown The Promise and his middling Forever Enthralled, Sacrifice is a fine return to form. (Kozo, 2012)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Kam & Ronson
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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