Chen Kaige’s Sacrifice bring soul and light to current darkness

Combing the richness of his 2003 father-son film Together and the Chinese historical legend of his 2009 film The Promise, Chen Kaige creates a stirring, fascinating story of family and national heritage in Sacrifice. The personal drama moves into Shakespearean-paced royal intrigue; and time-shifting edits by Derek Hui bounce from the mysterious psychological obsessions of the tale’s antagonists, a doctor and a warrior. It’s a startling, mystifying approach of fraught, yet common, human passion.

The occasion of sacrifice (a deeper, anguished variation on Sophie’s Choice–and extending that to future consequences) presents nothing less than a contest of good and evil. No movie could more fittingly address our post-Batman times. The challenge is complicated–made fascinating–by Chen’s detailing of all his characters’ eccentricities. This isn’t comic-book art, it’s blue-chip art.

No wonder Sacrifice got a derisive negative review in the Times. After the Aurora, Col., shooting, these are not the times (pardon the pun) for soulful filmmaking. Hollywood and our nihilistic film culture doesn’t care about viewer’s souls, yet that’s Chen’s subject: He wants to connect narratively to the complex, nearly impossible circumstances of a doctor, Cheng Ying (You Ge), who is forced to choose either duty or his paternal and spousal happiness, alongside a murderous soldier Tu’an Gu ’s (Xuegi Wang) hell-bent self-satisfaction, a need for power that defies reason.

This story, taken from a Chinese legend “Orphan of Zhao,” spans generations like one of those Edna Ferber family epics that inspired the movies Giant, So Big, Showboat. Chen works on that emotionally-big scale but he goes deeper than Ferber (deeper than even P.T. Anderson pretended to go when adapting Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! into the cynical There Will Be Blood. This film could be re-titled Soul!). He presents Cheng Ying and Tu’an Gu’s later lives (a suffering widower, a saturnine warrior) as matter-of-fact ironies–jokes of fate, life’s paradoxes. As we watch, each man’s character–his damnable consistency–becomes both puzzling and amazing. Chen is beyond psychological tension (which may be why the film upsets critics used to cheap ironies); he presents existential suspense. Sacrifice is as complex as Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time without the impenetrableness.

In exploring the essence and spiritual complexity of family and fatherhood (thus patriotism) and of sacrifice (and its root, compassion), Chen blessedly creates the opposite of a Christopher Nolan movie. Chen goes for clarity and light–especially as tooled by his amazing cinematographer Shu Yang who has a book illustrator’s attention to detail and appreciation of light–radiant distant focal points and action sequences seen from clear, exultant angles. In Longfellow’s words, these images “ripen thought into action.” These images are resonant long after the movie is over. One feels passion among different generations. Any single sequence (like a burly soldier’s loyalty demonstrated in a chariot chase scene of marvelously extended heroic exertion) is so kinetically and emotionally lucid and intelligible that it evokes storybook–Biblical–wonder.

For Judeo-Christian Westerners, Chen’s tale harkens back to root spiritual dilemmas. Fifties Biblical epics had this breadth, so too those wilderness adventure movies derived from James Fennimore Cooper. But Chen also gives his film a spiritual concentration like the great Westerns and Samurai films where motive is examined through motion. A comparison to the morally dank The Dark Knight Rises is unavoidable but Sacrifice also powerfully contrasts the epochal moral dilemmas of Coppola’s Godfather movies–literally so when the Orphan of Zhao (played by precocious Zhao Wenhao) fights with his divided loyalties to father and the mentor he calls “Godfather.”

That Times reviewer complained about a lack of female interest (a criticism best leveled at the blatant schematics of There Will Be Blood). That cluelessness misses the intricacy in Chen’s exploration of male sacrifice. The credibility of You Ge’s fatherly ambivalence and Xuegi Wang’s Mitchumesque masculinity make for a rich portrait of the human dilemma. Sacrifice has a little narrative disorder but it is visually and emotionally magnificent.

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