THE SACRIFICE (2020) review

The Sacrifice was reportedly shot in three weeks (an impressively short timeframe for a war epic) with three high profile directors at the helm: Guan Hu hot off another war epic, The Eight Hundred (but not that hot off it, as the latter film was long-delayed), Lu Yang (mostly known for his outstanding Brotherhood of Blades diptych), and Frant Gwo (of the sci-fi mega-success The Wandering Earth). It is set during the Korean war, as the Chinese PVA (People’s Volunteer Army) prepares for the battle of Kumsong, in which it is to back the Korean People’s Army against the US forces. For that to happen, the PVA must cross the Kumsong bridge on time, and thus constantly defend it and rebuild it as the US air force bombs it mercilessly. Across four chapters, we follow the soldiers crossing the bridge, the US pilots attacking it, the anti-aircraft artillery defending it, and in the end the sacrifice of hundreds of Chinese men forming a human bridge to allow the troops to arrive on time to the battlefield.

It is unclear whether the three directors split duties on all chapters, or each handled a separate chapter; but in any case there are no major stylistic discrepancies between each segment. Cinematography is credited to four different people: Luo Pan, Liu Yin, Han Qiming and Gao Weizhe, but remains a uniform and superb middle-ground between the near-monochrome many Chinese (or Korean) war epics espouse, and the splashier feel of Oxide Pang’s efforts in the genre (like My War or Towards the River Glorious). Earthly tones prevail, except in night scenes where a striking red and gold prevails, deeply evocative in a double-edged way: as a symbol of heroism, and as a near-exploitative gory showcase – indeed, not even in Sly Stallone’s superlative Rambo has one seen people more literally blown up to smithereens. Narratively though, the film struggles a bit more. The tone is not always even, trying to combine slightly offbeat vignettes (the bickering between top-billed Zhang Yi and Wu Jing, or Deng Chao’s extended cameo as an officer whose dialect isn’t understood by many), gritty, blood-soaked war scenes, and a near-religious coda.

And the idea of having each of the first three chapters recount the same sequence of events (rewinding every time a new chapter starts) doesn’t work in the film’s favor: such a concept works when each new chapter adds new depth and perspective. But here it is akin to watching the same shootout from three corners of the same room: sure, the point of view changes slightly, but no new insight or poignancy is gained. It’s a pleasure to see Wu Jing in a salty supporting role, shedding any trace of his martial arts persona, trading barbs with Zhang Yi in the kind of hangdog role he can do in his sleep by now, but the fact that their barely-sketched relationship is as deep as the film goes into its characters, doesn’t work in its favor. Nor does the second chapter, a cartoonish portrayal of the US side, through an American pilot (played by grimacing Russian actor Vladimir Ershov) who wears a stetson because you know Americans are cowboys, aren’t they?

Long Story Short: A visually stunning but narratively undercooked war epic. **1/2

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2 Comments

  1. I wonder if having a Russian play an American is to get back at Hollywood for casting anyone remotely Asian looking as whatever Asian nationality the script calls for (like Zhang Ziyi playing a geisha)?

    Reply

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