Sinister army general Tu'an Gu plots the overthrow and decimation of the powerful Zhao clan. Cheng Ying  is a humble doctor and new father assigned to the birth of the Zhao heir. When Tu'an Gu's evil plans are put into action, Cheng Ying rescues the infant Zhao, triggering a chain of events that will ultimately lead to great personal sacrifice and a patiently hatched plan of revenge.

4.5
A Chinese epic of love, honour and revenge.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Chinese director Chen Kaige’s film is a near-masterpiece, an epic story of the pursuit of power, love, guilt, deception and revenge in the 6th Century B.C.

Inspired by the Chinese play Orphan of Zhao written some time during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), it’s a spectacular, lushly photographed blend of action, adventure and character-driven drama featuring superb performances, elegant sets and impeccable costume design.

It’s a richly nuanced narrative because the hero, a doctor, isn’t particularly noble or brave, and the villain, a ruthless general, isn’t entirely evil.

Set in the State of Jin, the film quickly establishes General Tu’an Gu (Wang Xueqi) as a jealous, ambitious rival to Prime Minster Zhao Dun (Bao Guoan). Zhao’s son General Shuo (Vincent Zhao) is a war hero whose wife, the Duke’s sister Zhuang (Fan Bing Bing), is expecting their first child.

Tu'an concocts an elaborate plot to murder the Duke, who’s portrayed as a simpering, giggling figure by Peng Bo, and to massacre the entire Zhao clan of 300 people, the first of several expertly-staged battle sequences.

Zhuang, who’s just given birth to a boy, sacrifices herself after persuading her doctor Cheng Ying (Ge You) to protect the baby. Tu’an warns the villagers he will order the slaughter of more than 100 infants unless the Zhao child is delivered to him.

Cheng is forced to hand over his own newborn son to Tu’an, who immediately kills the baby believing it’s Zhao’s, then Cheng’s wife, in a truly shocking scene. The distraught Chen raises the boy named Bo as his own and vows revenge against his persecutor, declaring to an ally, 'I want him to live a life worse than death."

His strategy is to ingratiate himself into Tu’an’s court and to bide his time until Bo approaches manhood and can be informed of his tragic past. Tu’an dotes on Bo, treating him as his godson and teaching him how to fight. When the kid turns 15, Cheng reveals his secrets to his adopted son, sparking violent confrontations and a highly-charged, emotional finale.

Ge You excels as the wily, over-protective and guilt-ridden Cheng while Wang Xueqi deftly conveys Tu’an as a complicated and conflicted figure, capable of kindness and generosity as well as cruelty. Huang Xiaoming is effective as General Han Jue, a Zhao supporter who has his own motives for revenge, while the females aren’t given much screen time.

The film does have a few imperfections. The lad who’s cast as Bo as an eight-year-old comes across as a spoilt brat, which sits oddly with the actor who plays him as a far more mature 15-year-old. For a teenager, Bo displays remarkable dexterity and poise with a sword.

And a few moments of slapstick comedy, as when Princess Zhuang slips on some fish and flies in the air, are out of kilter with the overwhelmingly suspenseful and dramatic tone.

One of the highest-grossing films released in China in 2010, it was widely hailed as a comeback for the director who had struggled in recent years to match the storytelling quality and visual flair of his 1993 classic Farewell My Concubine and 1998’s The Emperor and the Assassin.