The Boy Who Would Be Emperor

07/25/2012 4:00 AM |

Directed by Chen Kaige

Sacrifice is a work of glorious melodrama, telling a story of such outsized emotions that to call it operatic or Shakespearian seems inadequate; this is a work of Biblical proportions, with a recurring theme of infanticide merely the most obvious parallel.

The film is the latest by director Chen Kaige, whose Farewell My Concubine remains a high-water mark of modern cinema. Sacrifice doesn’t approach those lofty heights, inevitably, but there are bountiful riches here, starting with a jaw-dropping production design with sets and costumes that astonish while never calling attention to themselves.

The story begins with a bloody coup in which General Tu Angu (Wang Xue-Qi, excellent) seizes the throne and seeks the infant prince who stands as the last royal heir. The child survives through heartbreaking chance and is raised by one whose life is dedicated towards revenge. As he ages, though, the boy’s loyalties shift in ways that are, unbeknownst to him, deeply ironic.

With themes of mistaken identity and a lust for revenge that spirals through the years, you can see why Shakespeare comes to mind (the film is based on the classic Orphan of Zhao, one of the most famous examples of zaju opera). It’s a story that recalls Kurosawa’s great epics, and if anything, it isn’t classical enough. The opening coup is thrillingly shot, though modern tricks like handheld cameras and frenzied editing dilute the impact. A late duel is so over the top (are wire-based acrobats mandated by law for martial arts sequences?) that emotions are lost amid the style.

These are minor quibbles. Here is a film that marries impeccable technical craft to a story that doesn’t avoid the tricky morality of revenge. With Chen Kaige, those waiting on the next pearl from Yimou Zhang have a new altar to kneel at.

Opens July 27