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An Orphan Becomes a Pawn in a Man's Quest for Vengeance

  • Aug 2, 2012
Star Rating:

The premise of Sacrifice does not sit well with me, but then again, perhaps that was the intention. Taking place in ancient China, it tells the melodramatic story of a man who uses his adopted son as a means to seek restitution of the death of his biological son; on the basis of the movie’s emotional and fatalistic ending, it’s quite possible that the film was supposed to be broadly moralistic in much the same way as fairy tales or other such fables. But I have no way of knowing if this is actually the case. Truth be told, I’m just clinging to hope. If the intention was to somehow glorify or downplay the actions of the main character, if we’re meant to view him as some kind of hero, then something went horribly wrong somewhere along the way. To keep my temper in check, I will go forth on the assumption that the film is indeed a cautionary tale with a moral.
Adapted from the ancient Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao, we open, as many melodramas do, with personal and political tensions that ultimately lead to tragedy. We meet General Tu Angu (Wang Xueqi), a treacherous man who plots to end the reign of the powerful Zhao clan. He successfully poisons the duke (Peng Bo), frames the chancellor (Bao Guo’an) and the chancellor’s son (Vincent Zhao) for it, and ultimately oversees the elimination of all 300 members of the clan. At the same time, we meet the duke’s sister, Princess Zhuang (Fan Bingbing), who has just given birth to a boy named Zhao Wu. Accepting her fate, the Princess entrusts her son to her physician, Cheng Ying (Ge You), who was supposed to give him to a friend of the Zhao family. Her instructions were simple: Her son must never know his real name, nor his past or his enemies. She wants him to live a normal life.

A complicated twist of fate inexorably alters this plan. As it turns out, Cheng Ying and his wife have a newborn son of their own, and General Tu, now aware that the Zhao baby has escaped execution, has decreed that the gates to the city be sealed and that all the newborn babies be rounded up. Long story short: Zhao Wu and baby Cheng are switched, resulting in the former being spared and the latter being slain at the hands of Tu. The Zhao family friend and Cheng Ying’s wife also fell victim to Tu’s wrath. Thus Cheng Ying is left to raise Zhao Wu as his own son. But he broods over his loss and swears vengeance on Tu. Essentially, his plan is to use Zhao Wu as his weapon; he will introduce him to Tu under the pretense that he’s his actual son, allow Zhao Wu and Tu to grow close, and ultimately reveal to Zhao Wu that Tu murdered his family. His hope is that Zhao Wu will be so full of hate that he will kill Tu on the spot.
For many years, all goes according to plan. We see Zhao Wu grow, first into a rambunctious child (Wang Han) who Cheng Ying refuses to let out of his sight, then into a teenage warrior (Zhao Wenhao). We see the boy grow closer to Tu, who believes the orphaned Zhao is dead, and distant from Cheng Ying. We see Cheng Ying form a friendship – or, more accurately, an alliance – with Tu’s former subordinate Han Jue (Huang Xiaoming), who was present when Princess Zhuang gave her son to Cheng Ying and whose face was scarred by Tu in a fit of anger. We see the younger version of Zhao Wu rebel against Cheng Ying’s overprotectiveness and demand that he be allowed to go to school. Does Cheng Ying love Zhao Wu? That’s difficult to say; although he does occasionally reveal some paternal instincts, it’s hard to imagine how you can love someone and yet persist in using them to satisfy your own need for vengeance.

Now do you see why this film makes me so uneasy? Its plot depends almost entirely on a heartbroken man manipulating and lying to an orphaned boy out of anger. I have to believe that the purpose of this film is not to venerate Cheng Ying, but rather to speak out against his method of revenge. If that wasn’t the case, if I’m interpreting the film incorrectly, then there’s really no excuse for it beyond the superficial levels of narrative and technique. This is despite the fact that director/co-writer Chen Kaige has been personally vested in father/son stories since denouncing his own father, the filmmaker Chen Huai’ai, after joining the Red Guards as a teenager during the decade-long Cultural Revolution. It was a decision he would later regret deeply.
My reservations notwithstanding, I am grateful that the visual appeal of Sacrifice depends not on the meaningless spectacle of martial arts but on production design, art direction, costume design, and makeup. I’ve repeatedly admitted an innate resistance to the martial arts genre, which relies on choreography rather than plot; this movie shows restraint in that regard, reserving all scenes of stylized violence for when they’re absolutely necessary. As for the plot, I appreciate that it’s dramatic and character driven, although I’m unsure about how it’s supposed to be interpreted. If it is in fact the didactic vengeance fable I believe it to be, then the film is a success, playing up the contrivances for maximum melodramatic effect and ultimately delivering a message intended to teach the audience a lesson.


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September 11, 2012
This was an excellent revenge film--just a little short of the Korean hit "Oldboy" in terms of revenge. Have you seen "farewell my Concubine"? Its this director's most famous film.
September 16, 2012
No, I haven't seen that film. You probably know by now that I tend to be much more critical of Asian films, especially when martial arts are involved. Something about that kind of storytelling just doesn't do it for me.
September 17, 2012
if you liked this one, then you may like "Farewell My Concubine"...it was also one of Gong Li's defining roles.
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Acclaimed Chinese director Chen Kaige reached international fame with “Farewell My Concubine” and despite his somewhat misfire with “The Promise” (one of the most expensive Chinese films ever made), his talent still spoke volumes when it comes to weaving tales of tragedy with high art. “Sacrifice” is Kaige’s return to form. Successfully blending themes of honor, betrayal, irony and tragic revenge under some Shakespearean overtones and intense action.   …
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It’s a new movie (2010) but an ancient story akin to the birth of Christ. This one happened around Yuan Dynasty, where the chancellor (Zhao clan) and the general (Tu) who are somewhat not on good terms had one of them plotted to kill the other by first murdering the duke (supposedly the ruler then) and blaming that murder onto the Zhao family. The entire Zhao family was ultimately killed with a baby left to be saved by the physician Zheng (also acting in the role of bringing the baby to this …
Quick Tip by . August 24, 2012
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After his somewhat misfire "The Promise", director Chen Kaige returns to form with "Sacrifice". Somewhat Shakespearean in themes and then  becomes somewhat cerebral, the film takes off as it takes situations over scale.      Ge You comes out with an outstanding performance while Wang Xueqi is both detestable and sympathetic as T'uan. This is the kind of film whose characters and situations drive its story and what comes out is a truly engaging …
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Chris Pandolfi ()
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Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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Sacrifice is a 2010 Chinese historical drama film directed by Chen Kaige. The film is based on the Yuan Dynasty play Orphan of Zhao.

The story is set in the Jin state during the Spring and Autumn Period of ancient China. The chancellor Zhao Dun and his son, general Zhao Shuo, have a rift with general Tu Angu. Tu secretly murders the duke with poison and pushes the blame to the Zhao family, using that as an excuse to massacre the entire Zhao clan of about 300 people. The only survivor is Zhao Shuo's baby son Zhao Wu, born to the duke's older sister Princess Zhuang. Zhuang pleads with Tu Angu's subordinate Han Jue to spare her child and commits suicide after entrusting Zhao Wu to the physician Cheng Ying, telling Cheng to bring the child to Gongsun Chujiu, a friend of the Zhao family. When Tu Angu learns that the orphan had escaped, he slashes his sword at Han Jue's face in anger, disfiguring him. Subsequently, Tu issues orders to seal the gates and to gather all newborn babies in the city. The ploy was to identify the Zhao orphan since Tu was counting on those hiding the baby(Cheng) to not hand him over; hence singling out the one baby left in the city to be the Zhao infant.

Cheng Ying brings the baby Zhao Wu home, but alas, his wife gives up the child to the searching soldiers, claiming Zhao Wu as her own son. Cheng then asks Gongsun Chujiu to bring his wife and son ...

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Director: Kaige Chen
Genre: Drama, History
Release Date: 18 December 2010 (China)
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