Almost two and a half years after its Chinese premiere (in December 2010), Chen Kaige’s Sacrifice finally arrives in the UK and goes straight to DVD at that. Back in the nineties such a situation would have been practically unheard of. One of the leading lights of the Fifth Generation, Chen had topped off an extraordinary run of features – Yellow Earth, The Big Parade, King of the Children and Life on a String – with Farewell My Concubine, which picked up the Palme d’Or, earned a pair of Oscar nominations and even played British televisions on Christmas Day. Follow-up Temptress Moon was banned in its native China but nevertheless secured widespread international distribution, while The Emperor and the Assassin was, at the time of its production, the most expensive Chinese film ever made. As the 2000s loomed, however, Chen seemed to become less surefooted. For his first English-language feature he opted to make an erotic thriller, namely the ludicrous Nicci French adaptation, Killing Me Softly. Together marked a return to form (though some critics detected a strain of Hollywood sentimentality in its tale of a young violin prodigy and his father), whilst The Promise was a CG-heavy wuxia that appeared all too eager to replicate the box-office success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Forever Enthralled, the most recent feature prior to Sacrifice, has so far failed to secure a UK release of any kind.
Given the haphazard nature of Chen’s output over the past decade (his contributions to anthology films Ten Years Older: The Trumpet and Chacun son cinéma were also somewhat lacking), it’s easy to come to Sacrifice with low expectations. At first glance this looks to be another of the martial arts tinged historical dramas that have been eagerly nabbed up by UK distributors in Ip Man’s wake. Yet whilst the early scenes conform to type – multiple extras, opulent period recreation – there are also more intriguing elements at work. The source is The Orphan of Zhao, a 13th century Chinese opera that became the first of the country’s plays to be translated in the West, later inspiring versions from playwrights as diverse as Metastasio and Voltaire. In essence a revenge story, it tells of the massacre of the 300-strong Zhao clan and their sole survivor, a child who is born as the slaying takes place. To explain any more would spoil the intricacies of the plotting, which, once the drama has settled down, become really quite engrossing.
Whilst Chen’s films have never lacked a certain grandiosity – one of Farewell My Concubine’s Oscar nods was for its costume design and spectacular cinematography has been commonplace since the very beginning – it's also true that he tends to feel more at home with intimate narratives. Epics such as The Promise and The Emperor and the Assassin are ultimately less affecting than Life on a String, say. But that’s not to say that the two are mutually exclusive: Farewell My Concubine’s story of two opera singers uses 53 years of Chinese history as a backdrop, while King of the Children addresses the Cultural Revolution through smaller-scale concerns. Sacrifice does something quite similar, bookending its tale between two set-piece action sequences. Both are entirely necessary, of course – the opening massacre sets the scene plus we have a suitably grand finale – only they’re also, by far, the least interesting aspects of the entire feature.
Those initial scenes, in particular, find Chen indulging the mawkishness which occasionally blighted Together. He also has a tendency to edit as though creating a trailer – underlining key moments with portentous fades to black and the emphatic punctuation of Ma Shangyou’s score – which only serves to over-egg the big moments. Far more successful are the more sparsely populated dramas, those which rely on veteran actors Ge You and Wang Xueqi (who recently appeared as Doctor Wu in Iron Man 3). The two men play the father figures in the Zhao child’s life – Ge as the physician who saved his life, Wang as the man who ordered the massacre – which Sacrifice charts from birth through to age 15. It’s here where the real conflict lies, not in the mass choreographed murder of hundreds. Chen is far more comfortable when dealing with a handful of actors and in Ge and Wang he has a pair of heavyweights.
Indeed, there’s something rather pleasing about the decision to rein in the action and restrict it almost solely to the performances of these two men (plus the various child actors who play the young orphan). All of the bombast disappears, replaced instead by a subtlety and nuance that’s become typical of the father-son relationships in Chen’s films. His own father was also a director, and one he was forced to denounce during the Cultural Revolution at the age of 15. Although they would later reconcile (with Chen Huaikai serving as artistic director on Farewell My Concubine), the turbulence of their past has continued to colour Chen’s work. It’s there most obviously in Together, but also informs Sacrifice to a great extent, too. The similar ages of the Zhao orphan at the film’s climax and the director when he denounced his father may be a coincidence, yet it’s hard not to detect an additional frisson.
At its centre, then, Sacrifice contains an excellent film. Get past the ‘historical epic’ trappings, and the somewhat overwrought opening scenes, and you’ll find what is arguably Chen’s best in quite some time. In fact it’s something of a shame that, after the two-and-a-half-year wait, a straight-to-DVD release is all that could be mustered. A Blu-ray would have been welcomed, of course, (one appeared in Germany late last year, albeit without English subtitles) but I guess that’s one of the side-effects of Chen’s diminished stature these days. Still, at least Sacrifice has eventually picked up a UK release, which is more than can be said for Forever Enthralled.
The UK offering is a somewhat cursory affair from High Fliers complete with decent, if unexceptional, presentation and just a trailer to back up the main feature. The dual-layered disc brings us the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio (anamorphically enhanced) and looking to be in fine condition. A couple of the darker scenes prompt a tiny bit of noise, but otherwise this is a perfectly acceptable transfer and one that retains the slight green tint prevalent in East Asian cinema. Do be aware, however, that the English subtitles are of the burnt-in variety and as such cannot be removed. The original Mandarin soundtrack, meanwhile, presents no problems and comes in both DD2.0 and DD5.1 form.