Ever since Farewell My Concubine way back in 1993, Chen Kaige’s movies have tended to be beautiful but empty, all dressed up but with no place to go. Finally, however, he’s come home. In Sacrifice, he’s toned down the epic window dressing and made a movie that’s a kind of chamber piece dealing in emotions that grip your heart like a bear trap and won’t let go. It’s his best film in almost 20 years, and Chinese audiences responded in kind, making it the number one movie at the box office when it was released.
Based on a real life incident in the Spring and Autumn Period (about 600 BC), Sacrifice is about a common doctor who loses everything as he tries to save the last child born to a noble bloodline. The Zhao family have the king’s ear, much to the dismay of General Tu, who craves power. In a smoothly executed coup, General Tu’s clan wipes them out in one bloody massacre, all except for a newborn child just delivered by the gynecologist, Cheng Ying (played by Ge You, If You Are the One, Let the Bullets Fly). Knee deep in blood, General Tu seals and searches the city for the Zhao infant in a tense series of escalating scenes. Ge You brings the infant home and tries to pull a switcheroo with his own child, but it only results in the destruction of his entire family, leaving him with nothing but the Zhao family baby.
After that opening, which is 50 tension-inducing minutes full of sudden reversals and whiplash-inducing plot twists, the movie becomes a Jacobean revenge tragedy as Cheng Ying becomes an advisor to General Tu, who unwittingly adopts the Zhao family baby as his godchild. The story unfolds over the decades as these three men develop deep bonds of love with each other, and as the audience knows that at least one of them has to die. Based on The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Zhao, a 13th century Chinese Opera that was the first to be translated into a European language, this emotionally rich movie is a return to greatness for Chen Kaige. It feels like the kind of tragedy Shakespeare would have written, if only he’d been Chinese.