General Tu’an Gu, the villain of Chen Kaige’s historical melodrama Sacrifice, is introduced as a man who has his reasons for chafing at his military and royal betters in the fifth-century B.C. state of Jin. As played by Wang Xue-Qi, an actor with a leathery face that serves him well as a mask of weariness and resentment, he watches as a favored young commander from the mighty Zhao clan rides home in triumph from battle, while he’s falsely accused of spooking his adversary’s horse by the state chancellor when the actual culprit is the young king, a cherubic simpleton. The sight of the chancellor’s pregnant daughter-in-law (Fan Bing-Bing) prompts the tactful monarch to chortle, “If your son was alive, you’d have a grandson too!”
Chen seems to be developing Tu’an as a complex Brutus rather than a black-hearted Iago, but Sacrifice only indulges in this ambiguity until the first big dramatic beat, the put-upon general’s slaughter of 300 in a personal-political coup. The film hews closely to the mythic demands of its source, the 800-year-old play The Orphan of Zhao, which has undergone Western adaptations by everyone from Voltaire to Stephin Merritt. And it’s not Tu’an’s story, but that of the selfless doctor (Ge You) attending to the Zhao princess who rescues her infant, marked for slaughter, at the cost of his own family, and raises him with an eye for vengeance upon the bloody deeds of the general’s sword. While the first half of Chen’s version suffers a bit from convoluted hiding-the-baby plot-grinding, it does retain an ancient, elemental pull even if the humble hero’s sacrifice seems more like a mammoth example of doctor-patient loyalty than a peasant’s self-denial. As the orphan grows not only under the physician’s roof, but in Tu’an’s mansion as the ruthless soldier’s idolatrous godson, a day of reckoning and confrontation draws inevitably near with the planned revelation of his roots to the budding boy warrior by his embittered guardian.
Chen recreates the period not spectacularly, but with humble sets of hanging burlap sacks and bulky earthenware in the doctor’s hut, and sleek, airy simplicity at court and in the chambers of power. While his film is light on action sequences, when they do come, particularly in the Zhao massacre and the climactic endgame between the boy and his two father figures, his staging is competent but rote. More crucially, the story relies on the values of antiquity which are dodgily backed up by the often pedestrian dialogue (or the odd heavy-handed flashback); motivation, similarly, makes a 180-degree turn when the most nuanced characterization, Wang’s ambitious rebel, engages in as blunt an act of child murder as dramatic convention allows. Sacrifice has a bit of father-son sap reminiscent of Chen’s modern-age weepie Together (the orphan’s shout at his rescuer: “You’re not my dad! You’re a loser!”), but it’s also afflicted by the very ordinarily written and performed role of the orphan all the tears and blood are shed for, which, to link this Chinese touchstone to a much later, distant literary era, might be labeled the David Copperfield Problem.