Oscar-nominated director Chen Kaige ("Farewell, My Concubine") admits that he's in somewhat unlikely terrain for his new film "The Promise."
"Quite honestly, I wasn't a big fan of the martial arts, because when my generation was young, that kind of book was banned," Chen says. "You had nowhere to find that kind of book whatsoever."
"The Promise" is one of the most expensive films ever produced in China, an epic that blends fantasy, myth and action in a colorful and soaring tale. Amidst the fighting and the myriad computer-enhanced effects, it's a love story involving power-hungry General Guangming (Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada), noble and speedy slave Kunlun (Korean star Jang Dong-Gun) and ill-fated princess Qingcheng (Hong Kong-born Cecilia Cheung). It's no coincidence that the film's central characters are all played by actors from different parts of Asia, a rarely attempted international collaboration.
"It's in the first place that I really wanted to make a so-called 'Asian Film,' to get the best talent from three different cultures," Chen says. "If you look back at the history of Asia, you would say the history was quite complicated among those three countries, but we want to show our desire's honest to do something differently, by making a movie together."
Although the film is set far in the past, Chen moves to emphasize its connection to contemporary China.
"Those characters are sort of recognizable in the society," he observes. "They're moralized like a mirror reflecting the current situation there -- the greedy general looking for success and fame ... and the cursed princess making the wrong choice between money and love. That's all about what's going on there."
Listening to Chen, it's easy to hear a marked ambivalence about the ways that Chinese discourse has shifted in recent years (only the most eagle-eyed of viewers will be able to sense the internal conflict in the film itself).
"In the past, with the Confucianism education, people preferred to have a slow life, in order to offer themselves some time to enjoy the things around them, including the nature," he begins. "But now, we're running like the slave Kunlun, without proper purpose. We have no idea why we're so fast."
Chen continues, "I think it's fully understandable why people are chasing money, because of the poverty they used to suffer in the past was horrible. That's all understandable. But at the same time, when we're achieving something economically, have we been making a good balance between the economy and the culture? I don't think so. We've almost lost our lifestyle."
Given that American audiences have flocked to films in the so-called wu xia genre in the past, Chen doesn't mean to make it sound like "The Promise" is any more political than "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or "House of Flying Daggers."
"Although I mentioned the meanings of the film, what I want to say is I want to tell the audience is 'This is a fun film to watch.' That's it."
"The Promise" opens in limited release on Friday, May 5.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times