Movie review: Chen Kaige’s Sacrifice

Chen Kaige’s latest movie has the impeccable look and measured pacing of a historical epic but the intensity and feel of I Spit on Your Grave or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Roughly divided into two, the first section of Sacrifice comes across like Shakespearean tragedy, with double crossing, throne seizing, and the massacring of a scapegoated royal family. It’s as beautiful as it is brutal, with just enough bloody swordplay to balance the layers of plot twists.

In the second half, a humble doctor raises the kingdom’s true heir in the usurper’s own household. The play that Sacrifice is based on (The Orphan of Zhao) provides a couple of interesting tweaks on classic martial art flicks. In a twist on training scenes that have been paid tribute to in movies from The Empire Strikes Back to The Matrix, the rightful heir is trained in the martial arts by his father’s killer. And to ratchet up the revenge factor, the tortured doctor sacrifices his own son in order to raise the royal son. The tension keeps building until the teen heir inevitably learns his true identity and must choose between his lowly and loyal adopted father and his royal and ruthless godfather. Intense.

There are a couple of things that really make the movie work for me. Ge You’s portrayal of the shattered-but-principled doctor with sympathy and subtlety is crucial. Is he a cowardly yet obedient follower of the true ruler who betrays his family or a brave patriot who will sacrifice anything for the kingdom? It’s never made clear and it’s never shown to matter. Having a badass showdown in the climax is just as important. Arthouse purists may be jarred by the transition from inner struggles to wire fu, but I thought it was a satisfying and appropriate payoff in a cinematic tradition that owes as much to Louis Cha as the Bard of Avon. It’s an extra layer of awesome.

Check out the trailer for Sacrifice here, then watch the movie on selected big screens across the U.S. and VOD now. The DVD will be available on September 4.