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Sacrifice loses steam in the second half

By Liu Wei | China Daily | Updated: 2010-12-01 09:05

Sacrifice could have been a masterpiece.

The first hour is full of drama and keeps up the tempo. A general kills his rival's entire family, but misses a new-born baby. A doctor saves the baby at the cost of losing his own. He then adopts the orphan and persuades the general to be the baby's godfather. He wants to take revenge on the general by seeing him killed by a boy he loves. Fifteen years later, the orphan grows up and faces a miserable dilemma: to become a tool of revenge or not.

Chen Kaige's consummate storytelling skills are clearly evident in the first half. It takes him just 20 minutes after the opening to bring out the complex relationship between the main characters.

In the original play from which the film is adapted, the doctor chooses to sacrifice his own boy to save his master's orphan.

Sacrifice loses steam in the second half

Realizing that its eulogy of loyalty to one's master will not resonate with today's audiences - it is, indeed, hard to believe that anybody would kill his or her own baby to save another's child - Chen smartly creates a number of accidents and coincidences that has the doctor sacrificing his own boy unwittingly. The doctor, thus, is no cold-blooded hero, but rather a man forced by circumstances to make the supreme sacrifice. This is much more convincing and touching than the old storyline.

Yet, it is a pity that the brilliant opening is not matched by an equally good latter half. For example, too much of the film is devoted to developing the bond between the orphan and his godfather, and too little to his sudden determination to kill him.

Also, the plot includes a character who discusses the modus operandi of revenge with the doctor for 15 years, but just disappears at the end. His story is left incomplete.

In addition, the doctor is shown drawing paintings to record the murder and conspiracies as evidence of his sacrifice, but the film fails to develop their role in the story.

Actually, the tragedy feels more like a melodrama in the last half, triggering more laughter than tears. And the ending is a clich.

Nevertheless, Ge You and Wang Xueqi give sterling performances. Ge plays the doctor, and will surely remind many of his amazing role in Zhang Yimou's To Live. Impersonating those at the bottom of the social ladder is still what he does best. He is utterly believable as he tries to convey the goodness and helplessness of a common man.

Wang's acting, on the other hand, is just like the general he plays: powerful, sharp, and well-controlled.

In sum, in telling a historical tale with an epic feel, Chen has shown he is still among the best Chinese directors. Had the latter half been developed more thoughtfully, the film would have been a masterpiece.

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