The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon paved the way for Hero, which, in turn, begat the sumptuous follow-up, The House of Flying Daggers. And, lo, a profitable film genre was born. Now, Chinese director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) steps up to the plate to deliver the most expensive film in Chinese history, The Promise. Unfortunately, all the money in the world can't make a tepid story and muddled script into a movie masterpiece.
After stealing food from a dead soldier's hand, orphaned Qingcheng encounters the goddess Manshen, who promises her unrivaled beauty and riches in exchange for a lifetime of heartbreak; she will lose every man she ever loves.
Twenty years later, the arrogant General Guangming issues a challenge to the goddess: If he can make it to the royal palace in time to rescue his king from the villainous Wuhuan, she must promise him victory in every battle he ever fights. Along the way, however, a mysterious assassin injures the general and he's forced to send his slave, Kunlun, disguised in the general's famous armor. Kunlun reaches the castle in time, but mistakenly kills the man he was sent to save. Instead, he rescues Qingcheng and falls in love with her. But Qingcheng thinks the slave is the real General Guangming. Worse still, Wuhuan wants the maiden for himself. Needless to say, all three men are in for a heap of trouble given Qingcheng's curse.
Bursting with exquisite photography, landscapes, costumes and battles, The Promise has all the makings of a Dungeons & Dragons fanboy's wet dream until you witness the laughable special effects. It's clear Chen is attempting to create poetic visuals, but his ambitions outreach his abilities.
In one scene Kunlun escapes with Qingcheng by tying a rope around her waist and running so fast she's lifted in the air like a kite. Neat idea but the poor execution ends up unintentionally comical. Supervised by Frankie Chung (Kung Fu Hustle) the unconvincing CGI effects have a goofy video-game quality that undermines the film's serious intentions. A particularly bold opening scene involving warriors running away from thousands of stampeding bulls barely achieves the quality of a Playstation game.
The convoluted and lackluster script is even more awkward. As the film progresses, the melodrama piles on as nonsensical fantasy elements overwhelm the love story. Chen's ragged narrative tosses in so many plot elements that it feels like the he's making it up as he goes along.
Strangely, in the film's final act, the esteemed filmmaker manages to pare things down and pull it together. He abandons the CGI and returns to traditional "wire-fu" giving the final action sequences some visual pizzazz. The romantic and personal threads of the story finally come together, and the imagery works instead of distracting from the drama.
It's the final success that makes The Promise so frustrating to watch. Chen's ability to gracefully bring the story's most disparate elements together suggests that, with more care, he might have produced something special. Ultimately, he can't be faulted for his ambitions, only his failure to deliver on promise.
In Mandarin with English subtitles. Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456) and at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].