The Holiday Season is upon us; it is about time for families to get together and hope that their babies do not get slaughtered.
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Everything is looking up for General Zhao Shuo. He has won the favor of the King (really more of a feudal Duke, but the movie calls him a king) from the old General Tuâ€™an Gu, is off to fight a battle that he is most certain that he will win, and his wife is pregnant. But things have been going well for him for a while. He is part of the powerful Zhao clan, his father is the Grand Chancellor, and his pregnant wife is the Kingâ€™s older sister. But one person is not so happy for him: Tuâ€™an Gu. He should be leading the troops into battle; he should be the one married into the royal family; he should be the one with a son who is still alive. Instead, he has to deal with the passive-aggressive jabs by both this upstart Zhao Shuo as well as dings from the goofy young king. It is even worse when General Zhao returns victorious. The king takes petty revenge against Zhao Shuo for being late to his own victory party by hitting his horse with a slingshot and then casually frames Tuâ€™an Gu for the offense. As punishment for something that he didnâ€™t do, Tuâ€™an has to eat the pebble that hit the horse.
Before anyone starts feeling sory for Tuâ€™an Gu, he has been coming up with a scheme to get rid of the General Zhao and all three hundred members of the Zhao clan in five easy steps. Okay, so the steps are not so easy, but they involve killing the King (!) and making it seem as if the Zhao family had poisoned him. General Zhao, who had left earlier under the belief that his wife had given birth, is attacked on the on his way home even before anything else happens. When the King dies, chaos breaks out in the throne room as Tuâ€™an Guâ€™s men go on the offense. The Zhao put up a good fight, but are eventually overwhelmed as the fight spills out into the streets and makes its way towards Zhao residencies.
At General Zhaoâ€™s home, Lady Zhuang had been about ready to give birth with the help of a physician named Cheng Ying, when her home gets surrounded by Tuâ€™an Guâ€™s soldiers. Apparently, Tuâ€™an Gu does not willing to kill the Kingâ€™s sister (it is not stated why, though one can guess), but is determined to kill her son once he is born. A mortally wounded Zhao Shuo is able to sneak into the house, only to die just as the baby is ready to come out.
When the baby is born, a grieving Lady Zhuang tells Cheng Ying to hide him in the medicine basket and take him away. She tells him to bring the baby to a friend of the family named Gongsun and let the child grow up with now knowledge of his true past.She stuffs her clothes so that she looks like she is still pregnant. Cheng Ying is about to leave when a soldier named Han Jue comes in to take the baby. They try to tell him that it has not arrived, but he hears him making noise. Lady Zhuang pleads with Han Jue to let Cheng Ying leave with the baby. She says that if she kills herself while looking like does now, he can claim that he thought that she died still pregnant. He eventually agrees to this and she stabs herself. Cheng Ying runs off.
When Tuâ€™an Gu finally arrives at General Zhaoâ€™s home, Han Jue pretends to have been deceived by the makeshift pregnancy suit. Tuâ€™an Gu repays his supposed incompetence by slashing his face. He then says to close all of the gates and collect every newborn in the city.
Cheng Ying takes the baby home. His wife is not happy with this new addition to the family. They recently had a son of their own named Boâ€™er and the Zhao baby will bring danger to them all. Cheng Ying, however, thought that the baby should get some milk before taking him to Sir Gongsun. His wife says that he might get caught with the baby on the way, and convinces him to bring Sir Gongsun to their home instead. This would have been an all right plan, except that Tuâ€™an Guâ€™s men arrive at Cheng Yingâ€™s house while he is away and took the Zhao baby, thinking that it was his. When Cheng Ying finds out what happens, he realizes that their real son, whom they still have, may be mistaken for the Zhao baby if they find him. Their only choice is to go ahead with the original plan, but lie to Sir Gongsun about who the baby is. Chengâ€™s wife, however, insists on accompanying Sir Gongsun. When they arrive at his compound, she admits that the baby is her own, not the Zhao baby. He seems understanding, but it may be the reason why he keeps them in his compound instead of immediately taking them out of the city. The movie does not spell it out, but I am guessing that he has decided that he is willing to sacrifice the Cheng baby as well as himself in order to safeguard the Zhao baby.
Through some rather complicated and perhaps convoluted series of countermoves and misunderstandings, Tuâ€™an Gu and his men arrive at Sir Gongsunâ€™s compound with Cheng Ying in tow. They trash the place, kill Sir Gongsun, kill the baby (thinking that it is the Zhao baby), and kill Cheng Yingâ€™s wife. On the plus side, the real Zhao baby is alive, as are all of the other babies. But now Cheng Ying has to raise the boy on his own, pretending that he is Boâ€™er as everyone looks at him as someone to be pitied or avoided. Everyone except for Han Jue. Still scarred and no longer a soldier, he wants revenge against Tuâ€™an Gu. He wants Cheng Ying to provide him with poison, but Cheng Ying refuses on professional grounds. Also, it is probably a little dishonorable. Instead, he reveals that Boâ€™er is really the Orphan of Zhao, and forms an uneasy alliance with Han Jue. Cheng Ying says that he will raise the boy to believe that he is Boâ€™er, and get him close to Tuâ€™an Gu. Years later, when the boy is ready to fight, Cheng Ying will reveal all, and it will be the Orphan of Zhao who will take revenge.
This movie is based on The Orphan of Zhao, the first Chinese play to get much recognition in Europe. It has been translated and adapted multiple times over the past 250 years. I would not say that this version is much more faithful to the original play than the European versions have been; certainly there are drastic changes here. Then again, the play was based on real people and real events, and was definitely not faithful to reality. There are three different versions of China on display here, setting aside the European Orientalist gaze. The first is the actual events in 607 BCE, when members of the Zhao clan killed the Joffreyâ€™esque Duke Ling and replaced him with his uncle. The second is the 13th century play that may have been written as a commentary of life under the then-ruling Mongol Dynasty, an ode to the feudal aristocracy, and a meditation on Confucian notions of family and rulers. The third is contemporary China, with its shaky One Child Policy, bitter memories of wartime occupation, and its rather dim view towards political dissent. In this third iteration, the King is a foppish goofball and a lovable scamp. Sure, he causes mishchief and says some things just to get a rise out of people, but he does not order his chef to be killed for cooking a meal below his standards.
I am not entirely sure if the audience of this movie was meant to already have known the basics of the story going in. If one goes into this movie with no idea what it is about, one might be confused by the structure and a few of the plot points. The first few minutes in particular has a few exposition dumps, but also jumps back and forth in time for reasons that are not necessarily clear. The machinations and crossed signals are sometimes difficult to untangle. I am guessing that the purpose was not necessarily set up the story for the audience as much as it was presenting the details and themes of the story that this film perceives as important or different from many other versions. It would be difficult to distill the six-act play into a 128-minute film, but this one does an admirable job. I suppose that there were a few questionable character choices and awkward dramatic shortcuts taken to get the story from one place to the next. There are two or three places where I kind or raised my eyebrows at where the story went or did not go. Overall, though, I still feel like it holds together well.
It might not be clear at the beginning of the film, perhaps due to the structure of the original play, but the heart of the film is Cheng Ying. He starts out as just this ordinary guy, perhaps a little on the old side to suddenly become a father. He seems rather content with his lot in life. By simply acting as the doctor to the Generalâ€™s wife, he finds himself thrown into this whirlwind of terror. For quite a bit of the film, he is a mix of frozen fear and quiet desperation as he tries to figure out how to rescue his son and keep the Zhao baby safe. When both his son and wife are murdered, he turns cold. He vows revenge against Tuâ€™an Gu, but in probably the strangest and most poetic way that he can think of: have the baby whom he had tried to kill grow up to kill him.
Chen Ying does not just want to kill Tuâ€™an Gu, he wants to Tuâ€™an Gu to regain the sense of family that he had lost decades ago, only to have it snatched away right before his death. He wants Tuâ€™an Gu to experience the feelings of fatherhood and family, and then have that all come crumbling down upon him. At the same time, though, Cheng Ying is protective of the boy whom he calls Boâ€™er and almost never lets the boy out of his sight. It is out of fatherly love? Is it out of paranoia? Is it out of a need to control what he sees as the raw materials that will eventually become a weapon? Is this fair to the boy, who is an unwitting pawn to a man whom he considers his father? Is it fair to the boyâ€™s birth mother, who asked Tuâ€™an Gu to ensure a normal life for him? Is it truly fair to the memory of Cheng Yingâ€™s wife and child, who never knew what he could become? Some of Cheng Yingâ€™s actions may come across as less than sane, and Han Jue frequently tells him that this long-term plan of revenge is stupid and impractical. Indeed, there are many times in the movie where it most certainly seems as if this plan is doomed to failure through the very parameters that Cheng Ying had set up. Still, he had made a promise to enact his vengeance this way, though it is unclear to whom he made that promise. It is about honor; the honor of two families. This is beyond reason.
Though flawed, Sacrifice is still one to check out. Whatever issues that I had with it, I still highly enjoyed the movie.
Next Time: Oasis (South Korea: 2002, approx. 135 minutes)
Time After Next: Insaf Ka Tarazu (India: 1980, approx. 135 minutes)
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