Switched-at-birth sagas don't come much more convoluted than Chen Kaige's latest period epic, about a doctor named Cheng Ying (Ge You) who, in an effort to save the baby son of the ruling Zhao family during evil general Tu'an's (Wang Xuegi) murderous coup, sacrifices his own infant son and covertly takes the last remaining Zhao heir as his own. These events alone take nearly an hour to unfold; Chen's film is stuffed with twisty-turny machinations that are difficult to untangle and not especially important to the story at hand, which concerns Cheng's efforts to raise the boy, named Cheng Bo (William Wang), in the house of Tu'an, all in order to groom the kid to kill Tu'an as revenge for the murders of his own son and wife. The second half thus proves to be a bizarre My Two Dads tale in which Cheng Bo is caught between cool-warrior godfather Tu'an and restrictive father Cheng, a push-pull dynamic that plays out with great sluggishness. Chen's attention to character over spectacle pays minimal dividends, and is compounded by the fact that his battles—full of standard-issue slow motion and hacked-off limbs—are as dull as an overused blade.
The future monarch crawls toward history.
Opens Fri., July 27 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 130 minutes.