Chinese martial art fantasy is an unique genre that is very popular in Asia, but has yet to become mainstream in American culture. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Yimou Zhang’s The Hero are both excellent specimens. Unfortunately, The Promise by another prominent Chinese filmmaker, Kaige Chen, is an improbable mess.
In a dream-like prologue, a young, orphaned Qingcheng (Cheung) has promised Goddess Manshen (Chen) to forsake true love in return for a life full of riches. Twenty years later, she becomes Princess Qingcheng, the Emperor’s (Qian) concubine. Men would fight a thousand wars just to get a glimpse of her beauty.
Meanwhile, General Quangming (Sanada) leads the Imperial Army in fighting the Barbarian’s invasion. After witnessing the incredible talent of a slave, Kunlun (Jang), the General acquires Kunlun as his personal slave. Kunlun saves the General from Wuhuan’s (Tse) assassin, Snow Wolf (Liu). Donning the General’s armor, Kunlun inadvertently kills the Emperor and saves the Princess’s life from the pursuit of Wuhuan. Thinking that she was saved by the real General Quangming, the Princess falls in love with him, not knowing that it is Kunlun who really loves her. The quest for her love results in an epic struggle for all involved.
If the story sounds convoluted, it’s because it is. The mistaken identity is only part of it. There are more love triangles than I can count. The story moves along briskly – too briskly. The audiences are never allowed enough time to stop and savor the characters or the story. The film looks and feels like a comic book, with each “panel” flipped through quickly, leaving no room for imagination and wonder.
The international cast doesn’t do much for the film, either. With the exception of Sanada (The Last Samurai), who brings certain finesse to the role of General Quangming, the performances are generally either bland or over the top. Korean actor Jang (Brotherhood) is handsome, but he is also wooden with only one or two expressions in his repertoire. Cheung (Himalaya Singh) is supposed to be the Helen of Troy of the East, but she comes off looking like a high-class prostitute, and her performance is thin and unconvincing. Tse (New Police Story) is a prissy, two-dimensional villain. Liu (City of Golden Armor) isn’t so bad, but he spends most of his time under a dark hood.
The screenplay by writer-director Chen (Temptress Moon) is a huge disappointment. It’s disjointed, overwrought, excessive, and convoluted. Almost no time is spent on character development. The audiences are spoon-fed with information to help us “get the characters.” The plot is nonsensical and illogical, even for a fantasy. The characters lack real motivations and their actions are often incomprehensible.
While the central premise is interesting, the unfolding of the rest of the story fails miserably. Worst of all, the action is boring. Those who are familiar with martial art, whether it’s the elegance in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the acrobat in a Jackie Chan’s movie, would be sorely disappointed. The special effects are also poorly rendered, something we would expect from, perhaps, ten years ago.
It boggles the mind. How could a man who brought us the exquisite Farewell My Concubine come up with such dreck? The Promise (the original, Chinese title means “Invincible”) is a prime example of how “style over substance” could go horribly wrong. Granted, the cinematography is beautiful, and there are some breathtaking sets and imageries, but a movie should be more than just moving paintings.
The subliminal Chinese philosophies of “suffering,” “fate” and “loyalty” are presented in an insufferably oppressive manner. The characters are highly unlikable, and the story extremely incomprehensible. The editing is also very choppy. Mr. Chen’s cinematic capital since Farewell My Concubine is dwindling, and he should promise to never make something like this again.
Stars: Dong-Jun Jang, Hiroyuki Sanada, Cecilia Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Ye Liu, Hong Chen, Cheng Qian
Director: Kaige Chen
Writer: Kaige Chen
Distributor: Warner Independent Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for stylized violence, some sexual content
Running Time: 102 minutes
Script – 4
Performance – 6
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 4
Production – 8
Total – 4.2 out of 10