2½ stars (out of four)
Chen Kaige's "The Promise" peaks early, in an outlandish sequence of a desperate slave (Jang Dong-Gun) outrunning a marauding pack of computer-generated Tibetan buffalo, at a speed that would put the world's fastest runner from "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" to shame. The special effects aren't particularly special in this scene, but the Chinese co-writer and director keeps his camera swooping up one canyon wall and down another while keeping the obstacles and enemy warriors and buffalo coming. The velocity is such that you wonder if the film, an overstuffed fairy tale heavy on the martial arts, can recover.
Not really, no. But Chen undeniably has an eye and, if he's lucky in Hollywood, a multifaceted, multinational career ahead of him.
Nineteen minutes shorter in its U.S. version than the edition that premiered last year in China, "The Promise" samples a fair number of recent martial arts-intensive epics, from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to "House of Flying Daggers." The plot is dense. The opening scene is not; it's memorably barren, a battlefield strewn with corpses wherein a young girl plays a trick on the son of an enemy warrior. The girl's nerve draws the attention of a floating goddess who offers the girl untold eternal beauty and fame. In exchange for these niceties, however, she can never experience romantic happiness. What the heck, she figures, there's no story if I don't accept.
Twenty years later the girl has blossomed into Princess Qingcheng, the apple of several pairs of eyes in "The Promise." A general and his speedy slave compete for her affections. Political derring-do and artfully fantastic wonders abound, though the story lacks clean lines or even gratifyingly tricky architecture. The pacing in this U.S. version feels hop-skip-and-jumpy, as if all the action sequences remained but some of the connective narrative tissue, not to mention a rest or two, hit the cutting-room floor.
Chen's earlier pictures, including "Farewell My Concubine" and "Temptress Moon," were works of preening pictorial beauty. He renders recent historical periods in creamy, stylized fashion, so that they seem like fairy tales taking place on an alternate-universe planet. Oddly, "The Promise"--which takes place hundreds, even thousands, of years ago, when art directors ruled the Earth--is flagrantly otherworldly but in a way that somehow weighs the picture down.
I'm not sure the director should return to this particular genre, whatever you'd call it. But he is, in fact, a real director.
Directed by Chen Kaige; screenplay by Chen and Zhang Tan; cinematography by Peter Pau; edited by Zhou Ying; production design by Tim Yip; music by Klaus Badelt; produced by Chen Hong, Han Sanping and Etchie Stroh. A Warner Independent Pictures release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, the Evanston Century 12 and the Esquire. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for stylized violence and martial arts action, and some sexual content).
Kunlun - Jang Dong-Gun
Gen. Guangming - Hiroyuki Sanada
Qingcheng - Cecilia Cheung
Duke of the North - Nicholas Tse