Theatrical Review: Chen Kaige
has always had a weakness for the theatrical, something that can be put to grand and operatic effect in films like Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon. It can also lead to quite questionable dramatic choices – or just blatantly silly ones, as is the case his newest, The Promise. The biggest budgeted film in Chinese history ($35 million, about what Bruckheimer spends on catering), it’s another in a string of costume action epics that have constituted the bulk of Chinese cinematic export to this country over the past few years. So why does it look so cheap and inspire not awe, but giggling?
It all starts off quite epic. Back in China’s distant mystical past, there’s a kingdom in which a battle had been waged, and a young girl scavenging food from dead soldiers. She’s offered a tempting proposition by the Goddess Manshen, a floating apparition who seems to like messing with mortals: the girl will have everything she’s ever desired, but everyone she loves will be taken away from her – unless time runs backward, snow falls in the spring, and the dead rise from the grave. The girl, not having a lot of options, agrees. This sets the stage for a grand, widescreen, Technicolor love triangle two decades down the line, the sort of thing one would imagine that Kaige could pull off in his sleep. The result is something quite closer to self-parody. Article continues below
The script isn’t big on exposition, so after the fairytale opening, the film shifts into battle mode, as an arrogant general (Hiroyuki Sanada
) prepares to fight an onslaught of barbarians. After a strange interlude involving a stampede of bulls and a slave who outruns them on his hands and knees, the general rides off to save the king, who is threatened by yet more enemies. The complications quickly pile up, and before long, the king has been assassinated, a slave (Don-Kun Jang
) has impersonated the general, the princess (Cecilia Cheung
) – has fallen in love with both of them, and the foppish sadist Duke of the North (Nicholas Tse
) threatens all of them. Hardly five minutes goes by without a declaration of love or a stunning betrayal, and the leaves are always falling.
Massive budget notwithstanding, The Promise barely delivers the goods necessary for the genre. Kaige relies overly much on special effects shots, which are almost without exception clunky and intrusive – Robert Rodriguez
could have whipped up something better on his Mac in a weekend. With this laughable a backdrop, the already hard-to-swallow script quickly dives into ludicrousness. Kaige (who also wrote the script) has neither Zhang Yimou’s grace with imagery or nimbleness with story and action, and the result is a film that lumbers when it should dance. This is not to say that the film doesn’t have a single card up its sleeve – a set-piece involving a barn-sized golden birdcage is singularly impressive. Only near the end does Kaige manage to whip the action into any semblance of the dizzy melodramatic heights that one might have expected from him. A film like this, which can barely muster up one good gravity-defying sword fight, hardly seems worth it.