[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
With so many sword fighting-intensive movies showing at NYAFF, it takes a lot to make any particular one stand out. The fights need to be intense, the choreography needs to be perfect, and the clang of sword-on-sword needs to sound like a symphony. But it can’t just do that once. That quality needs to be there from beginning to end. Having one awesome action scene followed by some entirely-servicable-but-nothing-special ones might have been find elsewhere, but it’s definitely not enough here.
Unfortunately, the makers of Sacrifice seem to have missed the memo.
Sacrifice (Zhao Shi Gu Er | 赵氏孤儿 )
Director: Chen Kaige
If you don’t know anything about Chinese history, you will find Sacrifice very confusing. I know that, because that’s how I felt. There are a lot of names thrown tossed around, and a lot of characters have roles that are never actually explained. The focus is on the Zhao clan, which is entirely meaningless to me. All I know is that Zhao is a surname, and someone is not a fan of that surname. I think that the king was a Zhao, but I’m not sure that he was a king or if China even had kings at the time. Either way, all of the Zhaos are wiped out for some reason that I never understood. I assume that people with a knowledge of Chinese history will have some basic context for this, but I could be wrong. It’s quite possible that the beginning of the film is just nonsense, but I can’t say for sure.
After the massacre, things become more self-contained and thus work for the less historically educated. During the massacre, a doctor named Cheng Ying (Ge You) helped to birth to the last of the Zhaos (fittingly, that is the Chinese title of the film) and ended up having to sacrifice (which is also a completely legitimate title as well) his own child to keep that one alive. That makes Ying sound like a monster, but it’s not quite so simple. A lot of people died trying to save the baby, and he felt like he was in a position where it was the Zhao baby or no baby. It should have been a moving scene, but it happened before I got my bearings, so aside from the shocking death itself, I wasn’t particularly affected by that scene.
Ying then raises the last Zhao as his own, and the man who killed Ying’s actual son (and his wife as well), General Tu, becomes Zhao’s godfather. Only Ying is aware of the connection, and his long-term goal is to use it as a way to give Tu a life worse than death. He wants Tu to die, but he really wants Tu to suffer for what he did. It’s a noble enough goal, even if it’s got some holes in the logic, and Ying is willing to wait 15 years to see it take hold. I don’t know how much I buy that part of it. No matter how determined someone was, I don’t think that anyone would force themselves to interact with his worst enemy for 15 years (he never sets his “son” out of his sight) for the sole purpose of enacting some kind of revenge. But it’s a movie and not a historical document, so I can let that part go. There are some larger holes in the story that stuck out a bit too much to be glossed over, but there’s no need to spoil them here.
There are two big action setpieces in Sacrifice, one of which is quite a bit better than the other. A few more one-on-one battles are sprinkled around throughout, but by the end they go completely off the rails. The big final fight turns to fancy wire work, something that is not found at any other point in the film. It makes a scene that should be cool (and does look kind of cool) stand out from the rest of the film in a bad way. But with the other fights, things are a bit more grounded in reality (although one of the coolest moments in the film verges on the ridiculous). The first is that massacre I talked about earlier. It’s huge, it’s crazy, and it’s got a dude wielding a hammer. He is awesome, and basically everything he does is awesome. The scene in general, aside from having a few too many cuts for my taste, is very well done. It’s the highlight of the entire film.
Then it goes downhill. The biggest problem is that the swords never actually hit the victims. I can’t think of another film I’ve seen that failed quite so hard at making it seem like the weapons connect. A battle on horseback (which also has no context, “going to war” really isn’t good enough) consistently shows swords missing their marks by about 2 feet. The sword swipes the air, and the person falls, but the illusion doesn’t work. Sad, but true.
Sacrifice did have some moments where I thought, “This is a good movie” and one moment (that fight) where I thought “This is great!”, but they were all cut short too quickly and replaced with something less compelling. The problem is inconsistency. The film is not bad by any means, it’s not even average. It’s decent. Completely acceptable and mostly enjoyable. But it squandered potential. The idea of a man who must sacrifice his child to keep the final member of a royal clan alive is fascinating, and it should be the catalyst for a really interesting story. Unfortunately, this one isn’t it.