Chen Kaige’s latest film, The Promise, is the latest Asian action/adventure film to explore the age-old male preoccupation with honor. Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also deal with another age-old obsession for many men: girls. Or maybe I should say: girl. Throughout the entirety of the film there are two females and one is a goddess, so she doesn’t really count. The one female in the film, the one that all the guys are fighting over, is Princess Qingcheng, played by Cecilia Cheung, who I can’t help but say is distractingly beautiful. Qingcheng was cursed as a child to get all the riches she ever wanted, but to lose any man she fell in love with.
As the story unfolds, a slave disguised as a general rescues the princess, then there’s a case of mistaken identity, misplaced love, betrayal, and old grudges resurfacing. The film is a fairy tale wrapped up in what is apparently the most expensive Chinese film ever. The pre-release buzz on the film was that it was going to be one of the most beautiful films of the year. Unfortunately, what should be epic landscapes stretching across the big screen instead look more like glorified computer games on a really large monitor. The special effects are shoddy at best and laughable at worst. That’s not to say the entire film should be written off in terms of aesthetics. The costume design is wonderfully detailed and some of the landscapes, although typical of an Asian epic, are a joy to behold.
What’s most sorely lacking is the balletic grace of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film this will invariably be compared to. Instead, the battles tear across the screen at a frantic pace. The beauty found in the highflying swordplay typical of wu xia films is undermined by the apparent necessity to show everything from 99 different angles. It doesn’t help that you only ever care about one person in the film; and no, it’s not the Princess. Like everything else that’s beautiful in the film, she ultimately proves to be vapid. The one person with whom we identify and care for is a somewhat minor character and once he’s done away with, there aren’t very many more reasons to stick around.
Kaige’s direction is competent, albeit a bit too reliant on computer graphics and outdated ideals. Although I haven’t seen his previous films, I’m led to believe he is a talented filmmaker and am curious to see what he’s capable of. As a result, I’ll probably rent his most famous work, Farewell My Concubine, but I doubt I’ll ever be revisiting The Promise. This isn’t a horrible film; it’s worse in some ways, it’s mediocre. Had it just been flat out bad it might’ve been campy, but the film held some promise (pun intended) and didn’t deliver. If this film failed to shine on the big screen, there’s no way it’ll fare any better on a television set. If you have to see it, see it while it’s in theaters; otherwise, don’t bother. Your money is better spent elsewhere.