What happens when you want to make a film with the soul and heart of Zhang Yimou’s Hero, the complexity of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the family conflict of Curse of the Golden Flower, but generate no spirit of your own? You wind up with Chen Kaige’s Sacrifice, receiving its US theatrical release today. This is not a film made to tell a story; this feels more like a film that will succeed thanks to those who have gone before it. Kaige approaches the material with a shotgun-like plan: just get the story out there and let it fall where it may.
The story, set in the Spring and Autumn Period of ancient China, finds Doctor Cheng Ying (Ge You) suddenly put in charge of the only heir to the Zhao dynasty as a result of a setup by General Tu’an (Wang Xueqi) having resulted in the execution of the entire Zhao clan. His wife having had a baby boy recently, Cheng tries to pass the Zhao baby off as his, resulting in the deaths of his wife and infant son. He firmly resolves to raise the Zhao child, Bo’er, as his own son, with a view to avenging his family in later years. And as the adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” proves, the only way to get to General Tu’an is to be a direct subject to him, which Cheng and Bo’er become. The movie takes place over 15 years, charting Bo’er’s growth into a boy, and eventually into a young man.
I felt the same way about this movie as I did with Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses. While trying to put forth what seems to be an entirely original film, Kaige attempts to use many different (and clichéd) techniques to tell his story: starting the movie in media res, unnecessary and jarring fades-to-black between scenes, unneeded flashbacks (due to the events being repeated verbally throughout), attempts at establishing some kind of color scheme, and fight scenes that have no energy to them at all – it’s as if they were just constructed as a kind of visual placeholder. The flair of this movie is that there is no flair and no style; it is just a series of events that has been photographed with little thought to giving any depth of any kind to the proceedings.
When someone tries to make art, I feel really bad when it’s not to my taste. Who knows? Maybe Sacrifice is the movie you’re looking for. The title says everything about the theme of the movie and doesn’t deviate from it at all. So many selfless acts for the sake of another are shown that it becomes repetitious after a while; it’s as if the filmmakers really wanted you to remember the title by the movie’s deeds and hit you over the head with it. Without any redemption, what is the point of the sacrifice? The movie barely spends time making the audience feel the weight of the characters and the acts they commit; instead, for the sake of pacing, we are sped onto to the next big step in Bo’er’s evolving life. My respect goes to Kaige for making art; however, I am sad, because it does not command my heart.