In 1949, the revolution of Mao Zedong infused revolutionaries worldwide with hope. In France, existentialists Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre singled China out as a nation with the potential to set all other nations free. Then in 1956, Chairman Mao made a public declaration to encourage free speech and debate among China’s intellectuals. A few months later, Mao’s police force moved in on tens of thousands of outspoken thinkers.
Taken from their homes and workplaces, these men were sent en masse to the Gobi Desert and forced into ditch-digging. The dirt-clotted trenches stretched far and long into the horizon, like giant snakes that emitted a poisonous gas of disease and despair. Men who died or collapsed were thrown into carts and burned, then their remains were kicked into — you guessed it: ditches. Those who made it through the endless months of hard labor and pale, muddy bowls of vile soup (their only ration) prayed for death or insanity.
This forms the story line of “The Ditch,” directed by Hong Kong’s Wang Bing (“West of the Tracks”) and probably the most depressing film to be released this year.
It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around such a slice of history. There are sequences that shrivel the senses, when it’s better to just shut your eyes than to take in the visuals that at once haunt and damage the soul. This becomes overpowering when the wife of one of the prisoners, her head bent against the sand and wind, arrives to find out what has happened to her husband. When she finally gets an answer, it’s from a man so emaciated he can hardly stand, whose face is cracked and bleeding from the sun. “Don’t ask,” he says. “Don’t think.”
The period between the late 1950s and the mid-’60s was one of tribulation for Mao — China was in the throes of a mega-scale famine and the whole world watched to see how Mao would deal with it. The arrests were a prelude to the Cultural Revolution, and a plunge into one of the darkest periods in Chinese history.
The wonder here is the breathtaking beauty of Wang’s frames, and the unadulterated poetry in each and every line of dialogue. How could something so harrowing appear so exquisite? We are left with the enigma.
So if “The Ditch” makes art out of dirt and coughed-up blood, the historical extravaganza “Sacrifice” by Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”) is a demonstration of art as no-holds-barred luxury. John Woo once said that the “Red Cliff” series cost so much to make, he had to pour in his own money to finish it, and “Sacrifice” is of the same mind-boggling scale. Based on the classic play “The Orphan of Zhao” and set in the late 13th century, this is the tale of how far a man would go to avenge the death of his newborn son.
The film opens with a spectacular and bloody coup d’etat engineered by General Tuan (Wang Xueqi), intended to overthrow the reigning clan of the House of Zhao. In the midst of the chaos a baby is born to the wife of General Zhao, and she entrusts the newborn boy to the court doctor (Ge You) before killing herself.
The doctor escapes with the baby in his arms but, before he reaches safety, Tuan comes looking for the heir. The doctor, whose own son was born days earlier, makes a fated switch between babies and Tuan kills the wrong boy, thinking him to be Zhao’s successor.
Years pass, and the doctor has climbed to power in Tuan’s court. He is raising the son of Zhao as his own and grooming him to be a first-class warrior, to overthrow Tuan’s rule and execute his entire family.
Despite the grand, historical trappings and glittering production values, “Sacrifice” is a highly personal drama that scrutinizes the father-son relationship on every level. Critics in Hong Kong have compared it with “Red Cliff,” but the streak of nationalism penetrating that film is absent here — and many scenes (particularly in the last half of the story) play out with the concentrated quietude of a Shakespearean tragedy. Indeed, there are overtones of “Hamlet,” but the focus of Chen’s father-son duo is much less on their private meanderings and more on the places they occupy in each other’s minds. There was nothing in the East Asian culture of that time to allow a whole lot of emoting among families, but the doctor is so obviously fond and proud of the boy it’s almost painful to behold.
Would the doctor have been so present in the boy’s life had he truly been his own child? Probably not — he would have had much less incentive. Which brings me to the conclusion that perhaps the Chinese classical poets were right: There is no human emotion stronger than the thirst for revenge.