Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2012 10:28 pm 
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Epic boy switch

It's a long time since Chen Kaige's Farewell, My Concubine, starring the late Leslie Cheung, co-won the Palme d'Or at Cannes with Jane Campion's The Piano. Nineteen years later we are getting what some think is the Chinese director's first real return to a truly successful combination of the spectacular and the intimate. This new film comes from a 13th century Yuan dynasty play, Orphan of Zhao. It blends the personal and the political because it's about the wreckage of a coup d'├ętat, but from the point of view of only a few people: the perpetrator of the coup, a palace physician, and a disgraced official, who're joined together by a boy saved from a massacre. It's a strange film, compelling yet in some ways clumsy and inconclusive; conventional and yet odd. Contemporary Chinese might relate to the baby-switching as a mythic evocation of their struggles with the government's one-child rule.

The source of all the action is veteran general Tu'an Gu (Wang Xueqi, muscular and bold), who finds he's been sidelined at court by the Zhao family. He stages a massacre and has all the Zhaos wiped out. This is where Chen works on a mildly epic scale, staging violent cavalry battles where we can't help but be worried that a lot of horses may have actually died during the filmmaking. It's complicated, but cut to Princess Zhuang (Fan Bingbing, beautiful but a bit limp), and her doctor, Cheng Ying (Ge You, sad and always mysterious). She is pregnant and so is Cheng Ying's wife (Hai Qing, who makes a stronger impression than Fan). Guess what happens: they both give birth, and the babes get switched. It seems to be an accident that this should happen, but the doctor's baby winds up getting killed instead of the Zhao baby. The latter survives and is raised as Cheng Ying's, with both his wife and the baby's parents dead. Cheng Ying's plan is to raise up the boy and then, when he's grown, explain who he is and what happened and spur him to get revenge against general Tu'an Gu.

Babies switched at birth is a tired but universal plot device. Chen takes a long time over the preliminaries and the baby switching process, and yet somehow manages to make it all pretty confusing. In a curious way, though, that confusion works, because the film's real focus is on how nobody knows who they are -- a theme very familiar from Farewell, My Concubine.

The Zhao child is named Cheng Bo (played at eight by William Wang, and as a squeeky but martial fifteen-year-old by Zhao Wenhao). The twist is that as doctor Cheng Ying is a court doctor and general Tu'an Gu is in charge of all now, Tu'an becomes close to Bo, becoming a second, rival father to the boy and his godfather. In the original play things end pretty simply. In a Wikipedia article on the play the fifth and final act is summarized as follows: "After discovering the truth, the Zhao orphan kills Tu Angu in the streets and avenges his family. The orphan, now known as Zhao Wu, is reinstated his family titles and properties." Just wait and see how much more complicated and ambiguous Chen Kaige's ending is.

It's interesting how Tu-an Gu and Cheng Ying become rivals for the affections of the boy Bo (and this is in the original play). The doctor is very determined, but Tu-an teaches Bo his warlike ways, while the doctor over time becomes increasingly aged, droopy, and pale -- dressed in diaphanous robes in the final scenes that make him look even more wispy, while even after suffering a poisoned arrow from Cheng Ying, Tu-an is, implausibly, as robust and macho as ever, like a Marvel Comics superhero. Things are complicated by the fact that all three, men and boy, know the boy's identity from the start, but they don't know that they all know.

An important intermediate character is Han Jue (Xiaoming Huang), a pale, dashing, vampire of a young general who sides with the Zhao during the massacre and helps doctor Cheng Ying make the baby switch and save the Zhao orphan. Tu-an finds out about Han Jue's betrayal right away and gives him a sudden sword-slash across the face that leaves him disfigured and apparently an outcast. Han Jue and Cheng Ying remain secret friends, meeting covertly over the years, a relationship the boy doesn't understand: they are companions in revenge. The film title Sacrifice alludes to Cheng's loss of his own baby, but the more logical title might be "Revenge. . . Maybe, " because -- this is where the film is modern -- the ending isn't neat and satisfying like the play's. That's interesting, but still Chen fumbles and dilates too much in both the early and the late parts of the film.

The epic, martial element is present, though the intimate element dominates, underlined by the fact that mortal enemies talk in loud whispers. And Chen Kaige avoids flashy effects. The budget is listed as $10 million, which would be almost "indie" by US standards, and might explain why some palace ornaments seem odd and improvised and interiors occasionally look like a Midwestern motel suite; but traditional Chinese movie grandeur is maintained, only with restraint, visible in a muted, earth-tone color scheme (with very occasional ravishing greens or reds). Since the original play included song and dance, we may as well take in stride that key one-on-one battles switch to traditional spinning-around-in-the air Chinese B-picture tradition, and a hideously suspenseful moment is resolved by somebody slipping on a wet fish. But the rivalries over paternity and the conflicts between scheming and affection are what linger beyond the Chinese epic movie conventions. If you like Chinese war epics, wuxia, the flash of Zhang Yimou, this may seem all wrong and out of balance to you. If you like psychological studies set in archaic costume, it's not Kurosawa, but it's still mildly intriguing.

Sacrifice, 130min, in Mandarin, opens in the US July 27, 2010, and will have an exclusive San Francisco engagement at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema (1746 Post Street).

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