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Chen Kaige’s “The Promise” arrives in a year crowded with Asian big-budget martial arts epics, counting among the competition Jackie Chan’s “The Myth”, Tsui Hark’s “Seven Swords”, and Myung-se Lee’s “The Duelist”, with 2006 promising even more titles from the genre. All four films have opened with mixed results, their pedigree as an Asian film trying mightily to replicate the Hollywood formula earning them equal amounts curiosity and scorn. To be sure, the qualities of the films have varied greatly, with critics and audiences alike failing to come to a meeting of the minds whether they’re good, bad, or somewhere in-between. Of the four, Chan’s “The Myth” might be the only film to have garnered anything approaching agreement on the part of fans and critics, if only because it’s the most innocuous of the bunch.
The setting of “The Promise” is a little different than its fellow Asian epics, in that Kaige has decided to create his own world instead of going back to either Ancient China or Ancient Korea. In the world of “The Promise”, a man can outrun a stampeding head of bulls, a man can swing a pair of golden balls and defeat an army of 20,000 men, and a Goddess can float about, dispensing tarot readings for no apparent reason. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, “The Promise” is basically “Legend”, “Krull”, or any of those fantasy/sci-fi/action-adventure movies that were booming in Hollywood during the ’80s.
The star of our epic is Korean actor Jang Dong-Kun (“Taegukgi”), playing a slave name Kunlun who has not known freedom, or choice, since he was taken from his home as a child. After his master is killed during a battle being fought by General Guangming, a man decked out in magnificent crimson armor (aka the Master of the Crimson Armor), Kunlun ends up Guangming’s new slave. Soon, slave and master crosses paths with the lovely Princess Qingcheng (Cecelia Cheung), who is so lovely she can get an army to drop their weapons for a glimpse of her in the buff. We also meet the effeminate Duke Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), who wants Qingcheng for reasons unknown, but if you pay attention you’ll probably guess his reasons before it’s “shockingly” revealed at the end.
If it sounds as if “The Promise” meanders, that’s probably because it does. The film doesn’t get under way until almost 30 minutes in, and even thereafter it continues to idle, seemingly unhurried by the conventions of story progression. Clocking in at just under 2 hours (making Kaige’s movie easily the shortest of the Asian epics), “The Promise” is also bothered by unsophisticated editing. To count how many times the film suddenly jumps to a new angle within the same scene is to spend too much time counting. Which is to say, for a big-budget film made by an internationally famous director, the editing problems in “The Promise” are unforgivable. Did they cut this thing on an Avid or a Moviola?
The main cast is appropriately international (“Get it seen by everyone!” is the motto for big-budget Asian epics nowadays), with Jang Dong-kun hailing from Korea, Hiroyuki Sanada (“The Last Samurai”) representing Japan (a major import target for the film), and of course Hong Kong’s own, Cecilia Cheung and Nicholas Tse, who is still letting his hair do all the acting for him as the film’s playboy/villain. I’ve always found Cecilia Cheung (“One Nite in Mongkok”) to be appealing, but her character in “The Promise” is not exactly the model of attractiveness. Written to be the most beautiful woman in the world, Cheung’s Qingcheng has the type of personality that makes you think twice about asking her out for lunch.
Although the four main characters get most of the screentime, the film’s emotional highlights involve Wuhuan’s right-hand assassin, Snow Wolf (Ye Liu), who as coincidence would have it comes from the same place as Kunlun . The two men’s interactions make up the movie’s most sincere and affecting moments, with Snow Wolf’s situation beside Wuhuan even less tenable than Kunlun ‘s. Ye Liu (“Purple Butterfly”) delivers a perfectly understated portrayal of a doomed man permanently locked in a state of emotional anguish, and it’s a crime he’s been left out of the film’s massive PR push. It’s also a shame that Kunlun and Snow Wolf’s shared story gets what amounts to a condensed presentation, because this truly has the makings of an epic.
The best way to approach Chen Kaige’s “The Promise” is to just go with the flow. Having wisely set itself beyond any recognizable time period or setting, the movie gets to explore all the wonders of today’s special effects, something it does frequently, and with mixed results. And for a film advertised as a martial arts movie, “The Promise” has surprisingly few fight scenes. The bulk of these are squeezed into the film’s first 20 minutes during Guangming’s battle against an army of generic “barbarians”, and again in the final 20 minutes, which contains about 2 fight scenes total, both much too short, with the final, climactic battle incredibly underwhelming.
“The Promise” is not nearly as bad as you’ve heard. True, it’s no great film, and the decision to spend so much screentime on the lightweight romantic entanglements between the four leads effectively destroys any chance the film has of being memorable. As a result, “The Promise” is camp, colorful, and has millions of dollars to buy special effects — some of which looks cheesy as hell, while others, like the background visuals, are stunning. In short, it’s everything you want in your Hollywood Summer blockbuster — loud, bright, expensive, and vacuous — except, it’s, er, from Mainland China.
Kaige Chen (director) / Kaige Chen, Zhang Tan (screenplay)
CAST: Dong-Kun Jang …. Kunlun
Hiroyuki Sanada …. General Guangming
Cecilia Cheung …. Princess Qingcheng
Nicholas Tse …. Duke Wuhuan
Hong Chen …. Goddess Manshen
Ye Liu …. Snow Wolf