CAPSULE: This is a Chinese fairy tale told in the style of very old Chinese fairy tales but brought to the screen with very modern CGI. A little girl makes a Faustian bargain with a goddess. Huge armies march. Men out-race the wind. Assassins make devious plots. There are some spectacular scenes that we know are generated largely in computers, but they are still fabulous. Chen Kaije's film is the melodramatic and complex story of a princess who has made this bargain and now must choose between a great general and a superhero, knowing she must lose whomever she picks. China's film industry is learning to make fun films. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
There are broccoli films and pizza films. Broccoli is nutritious, and while you are eating you may even appreciate texture and flavor with a little effort. But it is not enjoyable like pizza. There was a time in the 1980s and 1990s when Hong Kong was making some enjoyable action films and at the same time China was making films that were lofty and edifying. The Hong Kong films were like cinematic pizza while Chinese films, following some socialist ideal, were intended to be uplifting-- more the cinematic equivalent of broccoli. China's best uplifting film director was probably Zheng Yimou. Meanwhile the Hong Kong film industry was doing well with their action films, the cinematic equivalent of pizza. The first pizza film to be made by China, to my tastes, was Chen Kaije's THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN, a film of armies, action, and assassins. Somehow this film was appreciated, but did not get a really big following. Perhaps it was just not promoted as a pizza sort of film and people were expecting broccoli. Ang Lee's CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON was only part Chinese, but it probably demonstrated to the Chinese that they could make entertainment films. Zheng Yimou has been awkwardly transitioning from broccoli films to pizza ones. His HERO was a beautiful film and even somewhat fun. THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS was even more beautiful, but the story was melodrama and at times just silly. His CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER is visually exquisite but was not dramatically involving. Now Chen Kaije has made a bigger film of armies, action, and assassins. It is not as exquisite as THE CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER--few films are--but is one big dollop of screen entertainment, a big Chinese fairy tale writ large across the screen.
THE PROMISE is the story of a promise and a deception and the long-term effects of each. In the film's first prolog a poor little girl, Qingcheng, promises that in return for riches and glory she would lose any man she would ever love. It a mythic bargain reminding one of Alberich's fateful bargain in the opening of DAS RHINEGOLD. In the second prolog a great conquering general Guangming (played by Hiroyuki Sanda) of a crimson red army acquires a slave Kunlun (Jang Dong-Kun) with the magical power to run as fast as the wind. Almost immediately the general is wounded, apparently mortally, and asks his new slave to perform a mission in the general's all-encompassing armor so people would believe it is the general himself. Kunlun does and on the way saves the life of Qingcheng. At the heart of this story is a love triangle among the general, his magical slave, and the woman who dare not let herself love either. Mixing into the brew is the evil assassin Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse) who covers half his face.
At thirty-five million dollars this is China's most expensive film to date. While that price tag seems modest by Hollywood standards it buys a lot of labor in China. Computer graphics, it should be remembered, are actually very labor-intensive. Technicians have to labor over each frame of a film to get it right. A million dollars buys a lot of digitized tweaking in China. We see huge battles. And there are individual martial arts fights obviously enhanced with wirework. The story may be a little complex and not be easy to follow. There may be a few too many over-dramatic scenes, but this is a fairy tale in a traditional Chinese style. It may not always be coherent, but it is a beautifully visualized fairy tale. The images are highly stylized with strong use of primary colors.
This may be one of the most purely enjoyable films we have seen coming from China. In the end the film may be less than the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are simply marvelous. It is not so much like a RAISE THE RED LANTERN as a Chinese THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, not good in every detail, but with some wonderful images. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0417976/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper