As nations with a distinct identity going back for thousands of years, China, Korea and Japan provide a deep well of historical sagas on a par with Beowulf, the Iliad or any other more familiar Western tales. Not surprisingly, the film industry of each country has tapped into this rich vein in order to create memorable works. This review takes a look at “Sacrifice”, a new film opening today at the Quad Cinema in NYC by acclaimed Chinese director Chen Kaige of “Farewell, My Concubine” fame as well as two fairly recent films on Netflix streaming that will appeal to those who enjoy swordplay and thrillingly choreographed battle scenes involving thousands of men in armor, and to those who are tired of postmodernist irony. One is a Korean film titled “War of the Arrows” that is based on the Manchu invasion of Korea in the 17th century, an event that actually resonates with more recent history. The other is a masterpiece by John Woo titled “Red Cliff” that is set in 3rd century AD China and that thankfully rescues the great director from the hit-making CPA-driven machinery of Hollywood.
“Sacrifice” is based on the classic play “Orphan of Zhao” that was written in the 13th century by Ji Jun-Xiang and is the first Chinese play known to Europe. It was adapted by a number of important authors, including Voltaire. Like much of Shakespeare’s tragedies, revenge is a key element of the narrative in Kaige’s film as well as the two others.
As is so often the case in this genre, warlords are the dominant characters. The film begins with a bloody attack on the Zhao clan by a rival named Tu Angu who seeks to usurp his rivals in a Macbeth-like manner. Every last one of the Zhao clan is slaughtered except the chieftan’s son who is being delivered by court physician Cheng Ying while the mayhem is occurring.
When one of Tu Angu’s henchmen comes to Zhao’s chambers to retrieve the newborn child and deliver him to be slaughtered, the mother and the physician plead for mercy. Against his better judgment the warrior allows the child to be delivered to safety. When Tu Angu learns that the infant is still alive and concealed somewhere in the city, he orders all newborn male children to be seized from the parents and brought to him, including Chen Ying’s own son who was born within hours of Zhao’s.
In a mix-up that is part deliberate and part accidental, Tu Angu kills Chen Ying’s newborn son thinking that he was Zhao’s, as well as the boy’s mother. Chen Ying is now left alone in the world with nothing but the son of the leader of the Zhao clan who is led to believe that he is the physician’s son.
Showing a shred of remorse for having killed what he thought to be the physician’s son, Tu Angu becomes a godfather to what he assumes is the physician’s son and teaches him the martial arts, including swordsmanship. Chin Yeng has an ulterior motive in allowing the boy to be groomed by his wife and son’s killer. Once the adoptee has reached adulthood, he will learn that his godfather killed his real mother and father. The physician is sure that the youth will seek bloody vengeance.
Despite the expected presence of swordplay and pitched battles on horseback, “Sacrifice” is much more about human relationships and particularly the divided loyalties between Zhao’s son and the two father figures in his life. As one of China’s finest directors, Chen Kaige elicits memorable performances from Ge You who plays the physician and Wang Xue-Qi who plays Tu Angu.
Asked in an interview how he feels about the inroads that Hollywood is making into China, Chen Kaige answers that his films should generate mass appeal to audiences tiring of tinseltown superficiality. Considering his words, it should be obvious that “Sacrifice” is just the sort of thing that will appeal to American audiences tired of another stupid Ben Stiller movie like “Watch” that opens today as well:
What I can say is that we need to develop the market, if we want people to watch a variety of films; you need a variety of audience. This is a like a chain. Young people under 20, they go to McDonalds, they drink Coca Cola, they wear Nike and they watch Hollywood movies.
You can’t imagine the kids will say to you, “Let’s go to McDonalds, and then let’s go to the Peking Opera.” No way. It’s natural the young kids want to watch U.S. movies. The U.S movies are providing something interesting – high technology, a feast of visual and sound effects, it’s like playing a game.
What can we do? We are facing a big challenge from the invasion of Hollywood films. I think we should stay with the situation. We don’t need to be scared or screaming like crazy saying “The wolf is here!” I feel we should make more stories people can relate to and not just make big films to compete with Hollywood. You can have your own story to tell, which is wonderful.
“War of the Arrows” begins in the same fashion as “Sacrifice” with Chinese warlords wiping out another clan, this time Koreans. And as is the case with “Sacrifice”, it is left up to Nam-yi, the sole male survivor of the attack, to wreak vengeance on his father’s killer. The only other survivor of the attack is his younger sister Ja-in. So, basically you are dealing with a mixture of Macbeth and Hamlet with a lot more action. Who can ask for anything more?
In “War of the Arrows”, the main weapon is a bow and arrow as the title indicates. Nam-yi is a master archer who is living a purposeless life other than perfecting his martial arts. On the day of his sister’s wedding, the same warlords that killed his father raid the compound and seize his sister. The rest of the film is dedicated to his pursuit of the kidnappers and the vengeance for his father’s killing.
While vengeance is a fairly universal theme in Asian film, either of the costume drama genre such as this or in more modern gangster films of the sort that John Woo perfected, it probably resonates more deeply with Koreans who were victimized by both the Chinese and the Japanse at different times in their history.
In preparing for another essay on the Korean War as represented in Korean film, I began reading Bruce Cumings’ “The Korean War”, a book published in 2010 that I can’t recommend more highly. Cumings is not only an authoritative and radical historian, he is also a gifted prose stylist who writes with genuine passion.
The book details the great feats of the anti-Japanese resistance in the 1930s that were led by Kim Il-Sung in Manchuria, the same location as the film’s narrative. Instead of a heroic resistance using bows and arrows, Kim Il Sung led a relatively small band (350) against far more powerful Japanese forces that relied on Korean traitors.
Director Kim Han-Min’s next film is titled “Battle of Myeongryang, Whirlwind Sea” and is scheduled to be released next summer. The AsianWiki describes it as follows:
Movie depicts the Battle of Myeongryang which took place October 26, 1597. The battle involved Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, who had only 12 ships under his command, against the Japanese navy which had over a hundred ships. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin was able to successfully defeat the Japanese navy.
I would like to think that the director is channeling the spirit of Kim Il-Sung but am really holding out for the day when South Korean filmmakers can tell the truth about Kim Il-Sung himself, who was one of the last century’s greatest nationalist heroes next to Fidel Castro and Ho Chi-Minh.
Currently the only version of “Red Cliff” that can be seen on Netflix is the theatrical version, which is an ample 2 ½ hours. Although my remarks are based on this version, I would urge you to consider purchasing the 2-DVD uncut version from amazon.com as I just did.
Red Cliff tells the story of the war between the Han Dynasty’s Chancellor Cao Cao and two southern warloards Sun Quan and Liu Bei. The climax of the film is a naval assault on the castle at Red Cliff defended by the outnumbered southern forces in the summer of 208. Although John Woo said that only 50 percent of the film is historically accurate, a monumental battle did take place that led to the collapse of the Han Dynasty.
While the historical details of the actual battle are murky, this much is known. It did take place on the Yangtze River, which plays as much of a role in Chinese civilization as the Nile does in Egypt or the Mississippi in American (such as it is.)
Woo’s orchestration of the climactic scenes are about as stunning as any I have seen in this genre and make its Hollywood counterparts such as Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy” look trivial by comparison. (Petersen, a rather good German director, should like Woo leave Hollywood behind if he wants to retain whatever integrity he still has.)
Like “The Orphan of Zhao”, the battle of Red Cliff has inspired many Chinese writers, including the 14th century Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. There are also video games but I doubt that any could surpass Woo’s film which broke the box office record previously held by Titanic in mainland China, thus helping to realize Chen Kaige’s dream.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Woo’s work but suffice it to say that there would be no Quentin Tarentino if there was no John Woo. Tarentino’s films are practically a plagiarism on Woo’s work but without the visual poetry and the deeper moral sensibility.
After sixteen years in Hollywood, Woo returned to Asia to make a film that he had been dreaming about since the mid-80s. In an interview with the July 12, 2008 Singapore Strait Times, he explained his quest:
Woo says his patchy career in Hollywood was a learning experience: ‘In every film I make, be it an entertainment film or something more individualistic, I would search for some meaning that could sustain me for the period of film-making.’
But he hints that the experience had soured considerably by the time he did the Ben Affleck vehicle Paycheck (2003), a widely panned sci-fi thriller. [I saw it for the first time myself a month ago and can recommend it without reservations, if for no other reason that it is based on a Philip K. Dick novel.]
The script passed through many hands and was hemmed in by market considerations and budgetary constraints and there was also little room for improvisation once shooting started.
‘It was very different from how I worked previously as I would make changes on the fly. And it was hard for me to find meaning,’ he admits.
At the same time, there was a momentous event which prompted him to look back East – China won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games.
‘I was very excited and moved and I even cried. I thought I should return and make more meaningful movies. Since I have learnt so much in Hollywood, why not take what I have learnt back to China?’ he says.
Having straddled both East and West, he wanted Red Cliff to be a conduit to expose Western audiences to Chinese culture. That is why the West is getting a single-serving version of the film clocking in at just 21/2 hours.
‘Western audiences don’t understand our history. They might even have trouble telling Zhou Yu from Zhao Yun since the names sound similar,’ he says. Zhou Yu is the military strategist to Sun Quan while Zhao Yun is a key general in Liu Bei’s army.
With all due respect to John Woo, I don’t worry much about Western audiences in general. After all, 40 percent of Americans reject the idea of evolution. My reviews are geared to the most intelligent Americans (as well as my readers worldwide), those who have come to the conclusion that capitalism is an irrational system or at least willing to listen to somebody who has such a belief. If you are looking for something to keep your spirit elevated in these most dismal times, I can recommend “Sacrifice”, “War of the Arrows” and “Red Cliff” without reservation.