Writer-director Chen Kaige, the maker of Farewell My Concubine, has decided to try his hand at an allegory of flying swordspeople and magisterial production design. And why not? The gesture has proven a good career move for Chen’s countrymen and fellow art-housers; we’ve wished we knew how to quit Ang Lee since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Zhang Yimou didn’t even need to fuss over House of Flying Daggers—he had us at Hero. Never mind that Chen’s The Promise seems a little late to the Chinese buffet table; hoggish Western audiences are still scarfing this stuff down like there’s no, well, yesterday.
If these responses sound cynical and culturally insensitive, it’s the filmmaker’s own fault. The Promise is a stylish exercise of techniques already obviated by those two crossers-over (maybe it’s ironic that Zhang was once Chen’s cinematographer), let alone the countless others we’ve never even seen in this hemisphere. Chen brings art-house hauteur—not to mention a flashy multinational cast and a few principals from the Crouching Tiger creative team—to his fantastical-historical epic of valor, honor and doomed love, and the result is just what you’d expect, which is why it’s disappointing.
Somewhere within the mists of China’s mystical past, a romantic triangle forms between the ruthless Gen. Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada); his supernaturally speedy slave, Kunlun (Dong-Kun Jang); and the rescue-requiring Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung), who, when she was a little girl, arranged a Faustian deal regarding love with a questionably benevolent, fate-doling goddess (Hong Chen). Everyone’s enemy is a plainly villainous duke, Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), whose own slave, the oddly rueful assassin Snow Wolf (Ye Liu), has enough in common with Kunlun for matters to be further complicated.
To the cast’s great credit, this tale, with its many reversals of fortune and tests of loyalty, hardly lacks juice. To Chen’s credit, perhaps, its mystifications are made up for with sometimes-rousing moral broad strokes. Honor is a high concept here (listen for the earnest strings and brass of Klaus Badelt’s score if you have any doubts), and there is an almost Shakespearean satisfaction to be had from watching the enigmatic goddess’s prophecy come to fruition, as the various players push against fate with their evolving wills.
What’s not satisfying, at all, is that the movie is so full of computery, too-pretty compositions and self-conscious sequences of special effects—all pristinely digitized, color-corrected and drained of life. If the idea was to take our breath away, the result might well be a loud collective sigh. Laughable CG stunts—the fast-running Kunlun among an endless stampede of bulls, for instance—bear more similarity to Lee’s Hulk than to his Crouching Tiger. And for all its glorious costumes (Master of the Crimson Armor was an alternate title) and set pieces, The Promise also stocks up on battlefield weapons that look as plastic and preposterous as something you’d buy at the drugstore for your kids’ Halloween party. Was there a budget boo-boo?
This movie was China’s official foreign-language Academy Award contender last year, and it’s hard not to wonder if its primary aesthetic goal actually was to be the perfect realization of mega-budget Asia-fetish Oscar bait. Its defenders will cite The Promise as another benchmark in the hallowed genre of wuxia (a Mandarin compound meaning, literally, “martial arts chivalry”), which has percolated in Chinese storytelling culture for centuries and arguably reached its zenith—while also crossing over to Western audiences—in cinema. But a high achievement of the form isn’t what The Promise delivers. Instead, this film looks conspicuously like the pinnacle of wuxia’s bastardization—an obeisance to the decidedly non-centuries-old and non-Chinese tradition of scoring big box office. In other words, The Promise is broken.
In the end, I’m just not convinced that Chen cares very much about wuxia’s prospects. Not that I blame him. Admittedly, too, I’m not convinced that I care about wuxia’s prospects anymore. But is it really so shortsighted to suggest that maybe the moment of fable-simple characters performing feats of fealty and gravity-defying martial arts among vividly blossoming deciduous trees has passed?
Some of us still hold out the well-intentioned belief that China’s cinematic spectacles are inherently more imaginative than America’s. But to grade a movie like The Promise on a curve for its predecessors’ sakes is to commit a kind of bigoted denial.