For at least a decade now, the two biggest stars of Chinese cinema’s Fifth Generation have been inspiring widespread disdain among cinephiles, even as they continue to enjoy celebrity status and respectable box-office returns in their native country. Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige may have put China on the arthouse map in the Nineties with PRC-censored fare like Raise the Red Lantern (91) and Farewell My Concubine (93), but at the turn of the century, as their budgets began to grow and their populist, government-appeasing tendencies became more apparent, the goodwill many critics had shown them when they were racking up festival wins and Oscar nominations all but disappeared. Now that both seem to be caught in an endless cycle of mediocre to disastrous output, including a number of failed big-budget attempts to penetrate the U.S. market, critical favor is unlikely to ever return—and the very idea of commercial Chinese cinema’s aesthetic potential seems to have faded with it.
On the surface, Chen’s latest film looks to be more of the same, another retreat to tried-and-true formula. Adapted from the Yuan dynasty play The Orphan of Zhao, Sacrifice is a multi-generational revenge tale that follows the massacre of the reigning Zhao clan at the hands of power-hungry General Tu’an Gu (Wang Xueqi). In order to save the family’s newborn son, court gynecologist Cheng Ying (Ge You) offers up his only child to die in the orphan’s place. Believing he has killed off the last remaining member of the clan, Tu’an Gu becomes the Zhao baby’s godfather, and Cheng Ying secretly vows to have the boy exact revenge by killing the general after he grows up.
Chen has contributed a number of expensive epics designed to go toe-to-toe with Hollywood blockbusters, but this new film makes ever more obvious the contradiction underlying such productions. With its English title cartoonishly signifying age-old Chinese virtue, Sacrifice seems equally committed to achieving two opposing goals: on the one hand, courting American audiences with all the hallmarks of oriental pageantry (silks, swords, and various royal-court bling), while on the other coaxing a sense of cultural identification from native viewers with its illustration of Chinese ideals practiced to their extremes. Since Chen is smarter than his detractors give him credit for, he frames this 13th-century story with a modern reexamination of what it means to sacrifice one’s individual happiness for the good of the state, an imperative that the play clearly promotes but that would trouble many contemporary viewers. Ultimately the film remains so close to the surface, so disconnected from its characters’ inner turmoil, that its updated take on an ancient moral code ends up feeling perfunctory.
Zhao is a bona fide theater classic, with a particularly rich history of adaptation and reinterpretation in the West by everyone from Voltaire to the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt. It’s some of the best material Chen has ever decided to tackle, and when he allows himself to get silly—as when the opening-act massacre is initiated by a poisonous CGI mosquito—the staid chamber-drama atmosphere gives way to some fun, kitschy moments reminiscent of his so-bad-it’s-good The Promise (05). But Chen has never been able to compete with Zhang’s assured sense of pacing, narrative momentum, and visual flair. There are plenty of moody fades to black, and one particularly well-orchestrated battle sequence in a forest, but very little in the film ends up being convincing. In addition to some nonsensical casting (the usually excellent comic actor Ge You never stops looking intimidated by the role of tragic hero), Sacrifice’s most glaring flaw is its poorly proportioned screenplay, which wastes about half of the film’s running time on a plodding account of the killings and under-dramatizes the crux of the tragedy: Tu’an Gu and Cheng Ying’s power struggle over the young boy’s affection and loyalty.
In the absence of any significant entertainment or aesthetic value, what resonates are the political and cultural impulses that might explain the enduring popularity of this kind of storytelling. In interviews, Chen has described his period pieces as an antidote to the constant demolition of Chinese history in the nation’s headlong race to urbanize. In making these old-fashioned costume dramas, he hopes to give Chinese audiences a reminder of the heritage they should take pride in. But it’s difficult to square away the film’s fraught vision of Chineseness with such nationalistic sentiment. Regardless of its many weaknesses, what makes Sacrifice so compelling is the same paradox that underlies many other films in this uniquely Chinese genre: the tension between the long history of grisly political violence they depict, and their unmistakable nostalgia for the moral and cultural certitude the veneration of this history once afforded.