Director Chen Kaige’s most famous film remains “Farewell My Concubine” (1993). “Sacrifice” could be called “Farewell My Clan.” The first half of this lavishly produced costume epic concerns the plot by evil general Tu’an Gu (an excellent Wang Xueqi) to murder the Zhao clan. Since there are some 300 Zhaos, this is no small task.
We get a presentation of palace intrigue that makes the honeycomb of venom at Versailles in “Farewell, My Queen,” which also opens today, look like an assortment of juice boxes at LEGOLAND. Chen doesn’t spend much time trying to sort things out — it’s all a bit confusing. Now who exactly are those two guys slurping noodles? Are they both doctors? Why do they matter?
But clarity isn’t an overriding consideration, since Chen offers up most of the tricks of the trade of Chinese action pictures: slow motion, hyperactive editing, amped-up sound, people running up walls (almost no wire work, though). The pole-vaulting archers are a particularly nice touch.
The sense of playful, cartoonish excitement that comes from those tricks and the hurtling velocity Chen has gotten going comes to an abrupt halt about halfway into "Sacrifice,” thanks to a small-scale, nongraphic, yet utterly horrific act of violence. That act entails one of two key instances of parental sacrifice that give the movie its title. The other one begins with this summer’s most notable cinematic caesarean (after the one in “Prometheus,” of course).
The movie now changes radically in scale, tone, and intent. It becomes a kind of character study, which does not play to Chen’s strengths. The characters are Gu, Cheng Ying (Ge You,
Chen’s filmmaking is effectively meretricious. That’s not as much of a criticism as it sounds. Far worse would be ineffectively meretricious or officiously meretricious (a description that might make up a quorum at a Directors Guild of America meeting). But there needs to be a lot going on for the meretriciousness to be effective. So long as Chen has so many narrative balls, or arrows, up in the air, he keeps things moving along briskly — not particularly satisfyingly, perhaps, but definitely briskly. Once those balls, or arrows, land, emotion and character supplant action and caricature. That’s when the meretriciousness shines through. “Sacrifice” wants to have it both ways. It’s willing neither to give itself up to the goofy sincerity of genre conventions nor to make the demands on viewers that serious drama requires. The sacrifices Chen’s characters make would signify that much more if he’d made a sacrifice or two himself.