Movie Review – The Promise (2005)
At times stunningly graceful and picturesque and in other instances downright pedestrian and tragically overwrought, director Chen Kaige’s The Promise is a prime example of a filmmaker losing focus due to having seemingly no constraints due to a massive production budget. This is no surprise as we’ve seen this phenomenon before where an almost unlimited budget instead of freeing the mind and letting artistic license soar to new heights instead creates new problems and artificial boundaries that cripple the narrative at hand. With a truck load of cash filmmakers suddenly change their thinking to augmenting their work with copious amounts of superfluous elements that distract and ultimately dilute their core intentions.
At its heart The Promise is a simple dark fairy tale that shows how a little child named Qingcheng’s wish to live condemns her to a lifestyle of suffering. Starving and alone Qingcheng makes a pact with the Goddess Manshen (Chen Hong) that gives her great beauty and an extravagant lifestyle in exchange for the fact that she would never be able to experience true love. If she indeed discovers love she is destined to always lose it. Being a mere girl who only wants to survive she accepts the deal and the pact is sealed.
Many years later there is a great battle between the famed but egotistical General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) and a barbarian horde that results in the General’s victory but more importantly the outcome hinged upon a young slave and his unique running ability that caused the barbarians to scatter. This slave is Kunlun (Jang Dong-Kun) and Guangming takes an immediate liking to him and after the battle becomes his master but before the general can celebrate news arrives that the emperor has been besieged in his fortress by the scheming evil Duke Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse).
Rushing to his emperor’s aide, General Guangming is attacked by Wuhuan’s deadly assassin Snow Wolf (Liu Ye) and seriously injured. Not being physically able to fight the general lends his ornate crimson armor to his slave Kunlun and orders him to wear a mask and go and save the Emperor. However, upon arrival Kunlun sees the Emperor mistreating his Princess, the now grownup Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung) and instead saves her by skewering and murdering him.
Kunlun escapes with Qingcheng but soon an elated Wuhuan manages to trap them at the edge of a cliff. He makes a deal to let Qingcheng live only if the General throws himself off the cliff. In a surprise move Kunlun (in the general’s armor) does so, plummeting into the watery depths below. Princess Qingcheng is emotionally touched to find someone who actually cares for her and immediately falls in love with the general not knowing that it was in fact the slave Kunlun in disguise.
The Promise is certainly convoluted in its setup but it’s actually easy to follow. At its center it’s a simple story of love and how a young girl’s naive wish to survive causes pain for those around her. Kunlun as the slave initially relents to give the crimson armor back to his master but in a turn of events the general really does fall in love with Qingcheng. At first Kunlun doesn’t understand his emotions but he comes to realize that he too is in love with Qingcheng and bemoans the fact that the general is knowingly lying to her to get her to love the wrong man. This simple love triangle is the film’s emotional core and director/writer Chen Kaige is smart enough to mine this intrigue for all its worth.
Emotionally, the film works wonders as it weaves its tale of destiny and changing one’s fate into the mix but the movie at times suffocates the narrative with extravagant trappings that rarely enhance mood. Most of the film suffers from excessive CG that varies immensely in quality. When it works it adds much to the film’s romantic fairy tale setting but when it fails it’s as if a nuclear explosion has occurred ripping the narrative to shreds.
The movie unfortunately begins with the worst effects imaginable showcasing General Guangming’s battle with the barbarians that culminates with Kunlun doing his best impression of The Flash by running faster than a horde of stampeding bulls. Yes, that sounds vaguely asinine in text form but it’s made even worse in execution as the CG quality level is horrendous. Fans of video games will lament that the CG involved in some Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy are light-years ahead of this bull running sequence and instead of building tension and adrenaline watching a poorly pasted image of Kunlun running on the spot superimposed in front of robotic moving bulls is howl inducing. CG should enhance shots but for a scene like this to work the filmmakers better pour in a ton of resources to pull it off. Unfortunately, this work is less than pedestrian and makes the movie start off wholly on the wrong foot.
By contrast when the CG is used to augment shots like presenting colourfully detailed backgrounds and works in conjunction with tone and mood the film clearly soars. The CG itself is not Hollywood quality yet when it is presented in this fashion the film feels almost lyrical. It’s too bad that the film makes the constant mistake of adding extraneous shots that are not properly framed or thought out. Having a young Princess Qingcheng make the deal with the Goddess Manshan while the two stand on twisted tree branches on top of an immense green-hued rippling lake makes a gorgeous shot but when Chen Kaige begins to use excessive camera movement the illusion breaks down such as when he shows the Emperor’s fortress that defies all explanation being made up of many concentric circles on top of a cliff that’s surrounded on all sides by a gaping chasm. First of all the design itself makes little sense and it’s made worse by CG that could be done by a first year film student.
This degree of excess permeates nearly every element of the art and set design such as Duke Wuhuan’s inexplicable use of a cane that ends with a hilarious handle shaped like a pointing finger – it’s like a golden version of those huge Styrofoam finger toys you find at sports games. Whenever he aims it you can’t help but laugh at how absurd a visual it is seeing that blasted golden finger thrust in someone’s face. The costumes themselves are slavishly ornate and intricately gorgeous yet they are not in the least functional. General Guangming’s army is adorned from head to toe in eye-shattering red and his lieutenant’s wear helmets that soar a few feet in height. Clearly, no soldier imaginable would ever want to enter battle in such attire.
Kunlun’s ability to run quickly is never truly explained yet the movie is firmly positioned as a fairy tale taking place in some sort of alternate reality that just so happens to have the stylistic trappings of ancient China. It might have made more sense though to give more exposition to it since his running becomes a key component in the final act when, out of thin air he gains the ability to run faster than time itself. Whether or not the viewer buys into this is paramount and by introducing yet another fantastical element the film gives out an aura that director/writer Chen Kaige is basically making things up on the spot in order to write himself out of creative roadblocks.
Further compounding things is that Chen Kaige never fully explores or feels the need to explain or give boundaries for this fantastical world. Not only does time travel come into the mix but so do elements like a magical cloak that gives life or the ability to survive a fall that seems to be longer than a few kilometers. Without rules every element seems thrown in at random not to mention the film even manages to contradict itself more than once. Whenever someone decides to include time travel they better work out how it is going to be applied beforehand but here it really makes no logical sense. Thus Kunlun can go back in time a few months and prevent Qingcheng from riding away from the General so that the duo can consummate their relationship yet he can’t go further back in time to prevent the death of his parents. The only reason we are given is that you can’t change events in the past which totally contradicts his messing around with Qingcheng and his master.
Of all the actors, Hiroyuki Sanada is clearly the head of the class making General Guangming initially an egotistical pompous ass but manages to nail his slow conversion to timidity as he gains humility when he falls in love with Qingcheng. The veteran Sanada is a joy to watch whenever he’s on screen but the same can’t be said about Cecilia Cheung as the princess or Jang Dong-Kun as Kunlun.
The prime issue here is that though they get their fair share of screen time they really don’t have much to do or juicy material to dig into. Thus Jang Dong-Kun goes about his business with an almost quizzical wide-eyed look on his face in every scene while Cecilia Cheung is given bizarre orders which cause her character to twist in the wind. When we first meet her as an adult she’s overtly cackling and grinning evilly in front of the emperor and her almost witch-like makeup doesn’t win her any sympathy. The audience surely understands that she doesn’t like either the Emperor or Duke Wuhuan but there’s no reason to act like the wicked witch of the East. Thankfully, once she falls in love she calms down but even then she falls back into the stereotypical damsel in distress motif that waits around hoping to be rescued.
Nicholas Tse as the maliciously scheming Duke drips oily ham in every scene he’s in but at least it looks like he’s having a blast as the villain. With his outrageously feathered attire and his aforementioned pointed finger cane whenever he’s onscreen you can’t help but be drawn to his portrayal of this overblown braggart.
It’s too bad that director Chen Kaige cannot find the delicate balance between melodrama and an overload of style as the central fantasy-styled romance is actually compelling as is the subtext of providence that runs throughout the film. Ripped of all the horrendous CG and puffed up sets the movie might have succeeded in going in the total opposite direction with an intimate scaled-back introspective film.
The Promise has certainly gained a dire reputation as flopping badly upon release but it’s no where as bad as people make it out to be. If one can live with its warts then there’s still enough here to entertain yet it could have been so much more. Still, the film does have one singular standout triumph and that is Klaus Badelt’s soaring epic soundtrack that manages a pitch perfect marriage of both Western and Eastern musical motifs that literally lifts the movie from sheer banality. Badelt composes distinct individual themes for the four leads that are easily the highlight here. There’s no question that Badelt’s score is the one element generating emotion as without it the movie just comes off as a series of exceedingly pretty but soulless images that rarely provoke a poignant response. This is his most accomplished work to date and it’s a pity that it’s forever married to a questionable project. My recommendation: Buy the soundtrack a.s.a.p. and perhaps if you become enamored with it you might be inclined to give the film a shot.
** out of ****
2005, China, 121 Minutes, PG-13, China Film Group
Directed by Chen Kaige
Written by Chen Kaige
Produced by Chen Hong, Han Sanping, Kim Dong-ju, Ernst etchie Stroh
Executive Producer Ying Buting
Original Music by Klaus Badelt
Cinematography by Peter Pau
Kunlun: Jang Dong-Kun
General Guangming: Hiroyuki Sanada
Princess Qingcheng: Cecilia Cheung
Wuhuan: Nicholas Tse
Snow Wolf: Liu Ye
Goddess Manshen: Chen Hong
The Emperor: Cheng Qian
Ye Li: Yu Xiao Wei
© 2005 The Galactic Pillow