The most stylistically elusive and qualitatively inconsistent of China’s Fifth Generation directors, Chen Kaige has built a body of work that’s literally and figuratively all over the map, from the period pageantry of Farewell My Concubine to the dull-edged S&M of Killing Me Softly. Sacrifice, his first U.S. release since 2005’s The Promise, covers quite a bit of territory itself, ranging from magic realism to tearjerking melodrama, shifting modes so rapidly that eventually, the only solution is surrender.
Set in an undefined past ruled by an unpredictable king, the movie sets formerly dominant general Wang Xeuqi against rising star Vincent Zhao, who in marrying and impregnating the king’s daughter has set himself on the road to succession. Wang, naturally, has other ideas, and he hatches a convoluted plan involving venomous insects and misdirection to kill the king and frame his rival’s family, which he proceeds to wipe out by the hundreds. By stuffing her robes with pillows to conceal that she has just given birth, the king’s daughter buys enough time for her son—now the last of his line—to be spirited to safety, thanks to the added distraction provided by her suicide. A sympathetic doctor (Ge You), himself newly a father, takes the child in, but when the general starts rounding up every baby in town, the doctor’s wife gets too clever by half, and the doctor winds up with the wrong child for good.
Given that Sacrifice’s characters sow plenty of confusion for their own ends, the fact that its plot sometimes gets lost in a tangle of triple knots is strangely appropriate, and it isn’t necessary for audiences to follow every last loop. Chen’s real interest is the relationship between fathers and sons, or their surrogates. As the boy grows into a teenager (Zhao Wenhao), the doctor and the general vie for influence, each seeking to imprint a young man who in truth belongs to neither. Although Chen sometimes seems preoccupied with sets and costumes at the expense of the actors who fill them, the period trappings fade into the background as the interpersonal mechanics come to the fore. Chen can’t seem to decide whether he’s making a fable or something more down-to-earth, but Sacrifice works either way, if not both at once.