ascribed to Yuan Dynasty playwright Ji Junxiang, The Orphan of Zhao is the first Chinese play to be translated in
Europe. It was even adapted (quite
liberally) for the French stage by Voltaire.
Profoundly tragic but also rather violent in places, it has timeless
elements that continue to appeal to audiences.
Celebrated auteur Chen Kaige vividly captures both qualities in his grand
big screen version, Sacrifice (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
Tu Angu is not a man to take the slights of the Zhao clan lightly. Framing the patriarch and his son, General
Zhao Shuo, for the murder of the ruling Duke, Tu uses the outrage as pretext
for wiping out the Zhao clan. A swifter,
more awe-inspiring massacre you are not likely to see on film anytime
soon. However, he misses two of the Zhaos,
the young General’s wife, Princess Zhuang and her newborn baby. Sacrificing herself for her child, Zhuang
entrusts the infant heir to her doctor, respected commoner Cheng Ying.
fate would dictate, Cheng’s wife has also recently delivered. Suddenly having a newborn is dangerous
business and Cheng has two. In a truly
Biblical turn of events, Tu orders all the town’s babies to be collected at his
palace to be duly vetted. Through a
catastrophically Shakespearean turn of events, the Zhao and Cheng babies
essentially trade places.
up as Cheng Wu, the presumed son of Dr. Cheng, the Zhao orphan knows nothing of
his birthright. However, unbeknownst to
the boy, the doctor is grooming him to take wreak his vengeance at the
appropriate time. To do this he plays a
dangerous game, entering the service of the Tu retinue, manipulating his
nemesis into serving as Cheng Wu’s godfather.
Needless to say, some rather messy issues of filial loyalty arise.
have often knocked Chen’s films as pretty but rather bloodless historical
dramas, but this is absolutely not the case with Sacrifice. While the period
trappings are as richly detailed as ever, there is also plenty of blood. In fact, the first act is quite a spectacle
of mayhem, segueing into tense cat-and-mouse game, in which the fate of the
city’s infants hang in the balance. Yet,
it ultimately settles into a stone cold revenge drama.
several of Chen’s semi-regulars, Sacrifice’s
talented ensemble is equally adept at the stately tragedy and the gutty
action sequences. As Tu Angu, Wang Xueqi
is in his element. Ruthless yet charismatic,
he is the sort of villain viewers find themselves identifying with, in spite of
themselves. While Ge You might be better
known to American audiences for his shticky work in Let the Bullets Fly, he wrings real pathos from his performance as
Dr. Cheng. While her character is not long
for the world, Fan Bingbing is a typically ethereal presence as Princess
Zhuang. Yet, it is Mainland TV star Hai
Qing who really lowers the emotional boom as Cheng’s equally ill-fated wife.
Admirers of Chen’s Chinese Opera sagas Farewell My Concubine and Forever Enthralled should still appreciate
the classical elegance of Sacrifice. It is based on a play, after all. Likewise, fans of more action-driven Asian
cinema should never get bored with the relentless scheming and vigorous
swordplay. Indeed, Chen integrates the intimate and the
epic halves quite masterfully. Highly
recommended for fans of literate historicals and the wuxia genre, Sacrifice opens this Friday (7/27) in
New York at the Quad Cinema.
Labels: Chen Kaige, Chinese Cinema, Orphan of Zhao