Following in the footsteps of Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and Zhang Yimou's "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," Chinese director Chen Kaige is the latest internationally acclaimed Asian director lured by the call of the wu xia genre. Despite one of the highest budgets of any Chinese films in history, Kaige's "The Promise" is among the least satisfying of the recent sword-and-fantasy epics. Gorgeous costumes, elaborate fights and the illusion of swooning romance don't amount to very much if you don't care about any of the characters for a single second.
"The Promise" has an archetypal heroic story -- Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun) is a weak slave who knows nothing of his past. The ambitious General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) admires Kunlun's seemingly magical speed and captures him, giving him a boost of confidence in the process. After being slightly wounded by a mysterious Assassin (Liu Ye), General gives the Slave his armor and tells him to rescue the Princess Quincheng (Cecilia Cheung). The Princess falls for the man who rescues her, but follows the armor and believes her love to be the General. Toss in the evil Duke of the North (Nicholas Tse), who wants the Princess for himself and you have a pretty busy love story involving some pretty flat character who aren't used for much more than looking pretty.
There are indications that in order to streamline the storytelling, much of the General's character was cut out and, indeed, the American cut rounds roughly 25 minutes shorter than the version released in China. Perhaps those magical 25 minutes contain the narrative smoking gun that would have made the longing all of these people say they have for each other into more than mere words. Then again, I had a similar problem with "House of Flying Daggers" -- I can be endlessly entertained by martial arts action and fight choreography if that's what the movie wants to be, but if, like "The Promise," the movie thinks its better than it is, it had darned well better provide substance.
"The Promise" is more fantastical that the other recent Asian imports, relying heavily on CGI effects, particularly in an early scene involving thousands of digital soldiers and thousands of digital bulls. Because the effects aren't nearly up to the level audiences expect from American studio films, they have a cartoonish quality. I suspect that some of the laughter is actual intention, giving off a "Kung Fu Hustle" vibe, but most just comes from images that don't look nearly as cool as Chen must have hoped they would. In addition, that huge solider/bull conflagration is so big and comes so early that nothing that follows can follow.
During the disappointing wait for the next fight, there's nothing to do but concentrate on the ample empty eye candy. While watching unmotivated character wander into obvious traps, I was distracted by visuals like the Duke's giant golden birdcage, which becomes a prison for the Princess, clad in a feathered coat. I also liked the random goddess who keeps appearing whenever the plot needs a bit of a push.
Maybe the movie needed more of that goddess.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times