An emotionally fertile exploration of paternal love and revenge, Chinese saga “Sacrifice” reps a welcome return to form for Chen Kaige after a lackluster string of recent features. Although its medieval setting delivers the lush period detail auds have come to expect from Chen, the film is less an epic along the lines of “The Promise” or “The Emperor and the Assassin” than a family-centric meller with curiously small roles for its femme characters. Pic has earned a hefty $30 million domestically so far, but will need major marketing-coin sacrifices to cross over to non-Asian auds offshore.
Opening reels pack a massive amount of plot, centered around that old storytelling chestnut, babies swapped at birth. Corny as the device is, Chen makes the material seem fresh and relevant, particularly in a country where the now erratically enforced one-child-per-family policy has had such far-reaching social impact.
In a kingdom ruled by the capricious Ling Gong (Peng Bo), Gen. Tu-Angu (redoubtable character actor Wang Xueqi, “Reign of Assassins”) has been sidelined in favor of members of the Zhao clan. He’s particularly irked by the fact that up-and-coming Gen. Zhao Shuo (Vincent Zhao) has married the king’s beautiful sister, Zhuangji (Fan Bingbing), and the happy couple is expecting the child Tu-Angu feels should have been his.
Tu-Angu successfully plots to kill the king and frame the Zhao family, and his soldiers wipe out nearly every Zhao in the region nearly overnight. When Zhuangji goes into labor upon discovering her husband’s death, local doctor Cheng Ying (increasingly popular star Ge You, “Let the Bullets Fly,” “If You Are the One” ) helps her deliver her son in secret. Cheng and Zhuangji manage to persuade Tu-Angu’s soldier Han Jue (Huang Xiaoming) not to kill the baby, right before Zhuangji herself commits suicide.
Cheng takes the child home to his wife (Hai Qing), who has just had a baby herself. But wise to the fact that there’s one last infant Zhao somewhere, Tu-Angu demands that all newborns in the burg be seized. Trying to save their own lives, Cheng and his wife attempt a switcheroo that backfires, leaving a widowed Cheng holding the baby that isn’t his.
Cheng decides to raise the boy as if he were his own child, and names him Cheng Bo (played as young boy by William Wang, and as a teen by Zhao Wenhao), vowing to use the lad to seek revenge against Tu-Angu. To this end, he ingratiates himself with Tu-Angu, and even makes the general Cheng Bo’s godfather, a role the gruff soldier takes to with tender relish.
Although maternal self-sacrifices serve as major story beats, the bulk of the movie pivots on father-son and surrogate father-son relationships, making for a kind of male weepie with a martial air. Through nicely modulated, motivation-revealing dialogue with Han Jue, Cheng insists that the adopted Cheng Bo is only an instrument in his elaborate revenge plot, but he clearly loves the kid to death. So does Tu-Angu, no mere monster, but rather a man deprived by fate of his chance to have a family (as suggested in a slightly clunky flashback).
In contrast with the cavernous spaces featured in Chen’s flashier previous efforts, much of the action here unfolds in the modest interiors of Cheng’s house, with occasional forays into the streets and noodle shops of the town. Even a third-act battle scene — brisk, efficient and laudably subservient to the drama — requires a mere 50 extras or so. By the helmer’s recent standards, “Sacrifice” is practically a chamber piece, and duly draws its strength from its performances, especially those of Ge and Wang.
Craft contributions, especially production design and costumes, likewise feel scaled back here and none the worse for it. Lensing by Yang Shu (“Peacock”) is decorative but often banal, and suffered from soft-focus glitches at the screening caught.