One of the fun things about watching movies from a variety of cultures is to trace the migration of bits and pieces of “business.” As soon as somebody busts a move, you can be sure it will show up in half a dozen movies the following season–think of the Hong Kong chopsocky staple, the old run-up-the-wall-backflip. Cool back when, but lately? Meh.
That’s why I did a double-take to see it emerge in the swordfight that culminates the Chinese sort-of-historical thriller Sacrifice. Even more surprising was to see it done clumsily. Such is progress, I guess.
Actually, Sacrifice feels like it has been composed out an entire studio backlot of business, a lot of which is executed by director Chen Kaige with panache. Even better are the few counter-intuitive flourishes, often sprung exactly when the jaded moviegoer has decided he knows what will happen next. Set in the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1367 AD), the film spends a few reflective moments at the start lulling us into a doze while a mild-mannered doctor, Chen Ying, slurps his noodles in-between tending to a couple of at-term pregnancies: his wife’s and the Princess Zhuang’s, wife of the young General Zhao Shuo, son of the ruling Zhao clan.
Two babies being born at the same time is, of course, a tip-off that we’re going to have a baby swap soon. It’s a staple of storytelling and will be so until birth control is universally available. Sure enough, next up is a blur of palace rivalries and some kind of dark sorcery being cooked up in the basement. And then, out of nowhere, the disgruntled General Tu (the glowering Zuegi Wang) steps out on his balcony as a victory parade for his rival, the much younger General Zhao Shuo, passes below. What director Chen does then brought a smile to my lips. Not your usual villain, Tu.
And that’s pretty much the theme here. The tale becomes a long-simmering contest between two unequals, the timid doctor and the master plotter and fighter Tu. Yet however much we want to doctor to win, Tu has a greatness of soul and personality suited for rule, even if murder is his business. It’s a sturdy psychological axel for Sacrifice, and deftly takes center stage as the caravan rolls along to the ultimate face-off (spoiler alert: somebody’s been watching Star Wars).
Pragmatism has its benefits, and director Chen definitely has a practiced hand on the helm. The palace revolt triggered by General Tu’s little balcony scene amounts takes up a lot of running time–which can be good, like the opening of Saving Private Ryan, or deflating, like that dreadful third Terminator movie. This one is consistently eye-blinking, helped by superfast crosscutting. Guys will like it. They’ll even stick around for the rest of the movie, which has a subtle French aftertaste. Think The Count of Monte Cristo or Manon of the Spring. Here you see traces of Chen’s breakout film, the as yet-unequaled Farewell My Concubine, and Chen’s lifelong affection for turning operas and plays into films.
It’s not unusual for directors to do some of their best work when constrained by genre and audience appetites. Here’s hoping Sacrifice’s success gives Chen the momentum to tell more and better stories.