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The Promise

Doesn't Deliver

Chen Kaige, once one of the leading lights of Chinese cinema, winning international acclaim and arthouse success in the West with films such as Farewell My Concubine (co-winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival) and The Emperor and the Assassin tries for more populist, mainstream success with The Promise ("Wu ji"), an epic martial arts/fantasy/romance.

Following Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, and former protégé Zhang Yimou's successful wuxia entry, Hero, Kaige's decision to enter an oversaturated genre was predictable. But someone, somewhere has to ask (okay, that would be this reviewer), "What was Kaige thinking when he decided to embark on such an unpromising and sorry project?"

As the goddess Manshen (Hong Chen) watches over the remains of a bloody battle, she finds and questions a young, poor scavenger, Qingcheng (play by Cecilia Cheung as an adult). Hungry, desperate, and lonely, Qingcheng agrees to the goddess' double-edged choice: material success and comfort in exchange for the impermanence of love. Qingcheng will lose every man she loves. Manshen sets Qingcheng on an irrevocable path (well, not really, since there's an "out" clause). Exposition complete, she drifts away, leaving Qingcheng to struggle with and against her fate, to find love and lose love.

Flashforward twenty years, two armies, one red and one black, are about meet in battle. General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada), dressed in opulent red armor and plumage, leads a short-on-manpower army into battle. Guangming purchases 132 slaves (plus their slave master) to attack first, drawing his enemy away from his main army. One slave, Kunlun (Dong-Kun Jang) can run at incredibly fast speeds (i.e., he's a Chinese version of "The Flash", a popular DC Comics superhero). Kunlun's abilities and actions eventually save the day, and Guangming makes Kunlun his personal slave.

Learning of an attack on the emperor (Cheng Qian) by another villainous lord, Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), Guangming and Kunlun rush to his aid. Wuhuan's mystically empowered assassin, Snow Wolf (Ye Liu), attacks the men. Kunlun survives unscathed, but Guangming is injured. Kunlun temporarily takes Guangming's place, using Guangming's crimson armor to hide his real identity. Kunlun saves Qingcheng, but fails to save the emperor. Wuhuan consolidates power, seizes Qingcheng, Guangming becomes a wanted man, and Kunlun is sent in to rescue her. The lines of conflict are drawn, with Kunlun forced to act against his "heart's desire" as Qingcheng falls in love with the wrong man. Cue a seemingly endless series of wire-fu, as almost all the characters exhibit superhuman abilities, including the ability to turn time backward and see into the past.

Story wise, The Promise contains everything we've come to expect from martial arts/fantasy/romances: a larger-than-life hero torn between love and duty; an equally powerful villain; the romantic interest, and the third, generally superfluous part of the triangle. The goddess (aka deus ex machina) slips in and out of the narrative for no apparent purpose except to give the director's wife a role. Less characters than archetypes or even caricatures, the princess, the slave, the general, the villain, the assassin, and the goddess could be traded in for any number of similar characters from wuxia films and no one, least of all Kaige, would even notice.

That the characters are underwritten and undermotivated shouldn't come as a surprise. The equally flaccid storyline isn't a surprise either. What is a surprise, though, is Kaige's overdesigned sets, eyebrow-raising costume choices, and CGI for just about everything, whether it was necessary or not. Not content to direct the fight scenes cleanly and unobtrusively, Kaige opts for a dizzying array of camera moves, often circling back in the opposite direction from the actors' movements. The overused camera moves are just one more indication of a director in over his head desperately hoping to cover storytelling inadequacies through visual style.

Calling The Promise an artistic failure may sound unusually harsh, but it's hard to avoid that conclusion. Undermined by a lackluster, rote storyline, thin, undermotivated characters, repetitive martial arts scenes, and sub-par "special" effects, The Promise suggests that Kaige was either unprepared to direct an effects-heavy film, uninterested in the subject matter, or simply in it for the paycheck (and the chance to write/direct something closer to his interests next time around). But, hey, at least Kaige got the chance to direct his wife, Chen Hong (who also co-produced). Next time Hong should keep Kaige on only as the director.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars