Directed by Chen Kaige. Starring Hiroyuki Sanada, Dong-Kun Jang, Cecilia Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Chen Hong, Liu Yeh. (2005, NR, 102 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 5, 2006
Chen Kaige, the Chinese director of the masterful epic dramas The Emperor and the Assassin and Farewell My Concubine, tries his hand at a more fantastical story that seems to want to follow in the recent crossover footsteps of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. While always interesting, The Promise will never achieve the same kind of popularity in the West that greeted the other two films. Reportedly the most expensive Chinese film ever made, The Promise has been truncated by 18-19 minutes in an effort to clarify some of the action by Harvey Weinstein in his former capacity as head of Miramax before his distribution company dropped the film, which was later picked up by Warner Independent. The movie mixes sequences of romance, war, and magic for a blend that never quite feels like its whole heart is in any one of its modalities. Chen’s frequently gorgeous set-pieces often have billowing fabrics, petals, feathers, and hair cascading across his images, and an epic cast of extras that must number near one thousand. Yet the film’s essential CGI work will look dodgy by Western standards and has a deleterious effect on the magical illusions it is meant to convey. Plus, by my understanding of the story, the magical elements play it both ways: At the beginning, a goddess promises beauty, riches, and power to the little girl Qingcheng at the cost of never experiencing lasting love; at the end, the goddess reappears – after destiny has shaped and destroyed the lives of so many – to demonstrate the loophole available to alter one’s fate. Following the prologue with the goddess, the movie jumps ahead 20 years to find Qingcheng (Cheung) a princess who turns on the king. She is saved by Kunlun (Dong-Kun), the slave of General Guangming (Sanada), and thus begins the mistaken-identity thread of this three-sided love story. Like its images, The Promise billows through the imagination as it unfolds but it leaves little lasting impression once its last feather has fluttered.