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5 reviews, 2 user ratings

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Promise, The (2006)
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by Jay Seaver

"An adventure that almost overloads the senses."
4 stars

"The Promise" is crazy, but it is for the most part the good kind of crazy. It's big, fantastical and epic, combining grand scale with individual passion. It's absolutely gorgeous to look at. It's also utterly ridiculous, with action that leaps from exaggerated to cartoonish, a plot driven by trivial things, and special effects that occasionally fall well short of the cinematography that surrounds them. The film careens back and forth across the line between glorious excess and excessive excess.

Back in the time of myth and legend, there was a kingdom where gods and men lived alongside each other. It was not a peaceful place, though - when we first meet Qingcheng, she's a girl of about five, scavenging among the dead soldiers for food and clothes. As she flees the scene, she meets the goddess Manshen (Hong Chen), who offers her the chance to grow up a beauty among beauties, rich, and wanting for nothing, except that she will lose every man she loves. Being five, hungry, and not able to comprehend what it means to be in love, she accepts the bargain.

Twenty years later, there's a new war. The Great General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) plans to use a group of slaves as spear fodder against attacking barbarians, but one, Kunlun (Dong-Kun Jang) is possessed of extraordinary speed and survives. Guangming, "Master of the Crimson Armor", takes Kunlun as his personal slave, asking him to accompany him on a mission to rescce the Emperor (Cheng Qian) from rival prince Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse). Anticipating Guangming, Wuhuan has sent Snow Wolf (Ye Liu), an assassin, to stop Guangming. He doesn't anticipate Kunlun, whom Guangming tells to don the Crimson Armor and resuce the Emperor in his stead. "The Emperor", he says, "will be the only one without a sword." So what does Kunlun find when he arrives? An old man brandishing a sword at Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung). Oops. The princess flees with her rescuer, thus beginning a case of mistaken identity that we know is fated for a tragic ending, thanks to that opening segment.

The film is beautiful just to look at; cinematographer Peter Pau (who also shot Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and the art department work in bright primary colors, with the bright reds of Guangming's army opposing blue-clad barbarians. Wuhuan and his army are always in a stark white (in Chinese culture, the color of death). Snow Wolf shrouds himself in a black costume that hides half his face, implying secrets. Showers of rose petals rain down during dramatic scenes. There's a very stylized beauty to almost every shot from the golden birdcage where Qingcheng is imprisoned to the country house where Guangming later takes up residence, which seems to have grown from the side of a hill. Even the scenes of battlefield carnage have a certain pleasing aesthetic, whether it be the color-coded armies or the circles implied by the corpses as the camera pulls up from young Qingcheng in the first scene.

And into that beauty, Chen injects special effects that don't seem to fit. The effects work doesn't look terribly cheap, although it's not exactly seamless. It's more likely to look kind of silly. We first see Kunlun's speed because he's crawling, with his first master on his back, at about a hundred miles an hour to outrun a herd of bulls; it's not a gait that looks human. A hail of arrows looks like laser blasts from Star Wars. We're transported to this impeccably designed and exquisitely shot time of ancient myth, and then every once in a while some element will seem like something a kid thought up.

And yet, that's a part of the film's charm, too. It's a fairy tale, with a beautiful princess cursed to never feel true love, a lost kingdom, and a slave who proves far nobler than his master. But it's not stuffy; it's got moments like little Qingcheng bopping a general's son on the head with his ornate helmet, a slave casually accepting his change of masters because it means three meals a day, and a princess who balks at the emperor imploring her to strip to keep the surrounding horde from attacking. That playfulness makes the film initially seem a bit off-kilter, but it's a little bit missed when the film finds itself tilted more toward melodrama in the end. It also lacks a really satisfactory conclusion to the question of who Qingcheng loves and how the promise of the title plays into that.

Cecilia Cheung sort of has the same role as Robin Wright in The Princess Bride, and really doesn't get to have much fun after her first scene. She's not bad, it's just that that marks the end of her time as an active participant. The guys get a much better deal. Dong-Kun Jang is enjoyably laid-back to start, kind of dim but slowly gaining in stature as he learns about his past. Sanada works the arrogance adroitly, so that we're rooting for Kunlun even as Guangming does appear to come to love Qingcheng, but don't quite feel the hate for him. He projects a weird respect for Kunlun even while considering himself superior. Tse, meanwhile, gets to go all-out in his villainy. Wuhuan's a bad, bad man, and it's obvious that he loves having others under his thumb more than anything else. Tse also appears to be the best fighter of the lot, though Sanada was a student of Sonny Chiba.

To my inexpert eye, the multinational cast and crew works well together: Cheung and Tse are from Hong Kong, Jang from Korea, and Sanada from Japan, while Chen Kaige is from Beijing. That's unusual, because it means almost everyone on-screen is speaking a language to them (I believe that the film is in Mandarin, while Cantonese is the primary language in Hong Kong). You can pick up a lot by tone of voice, but I wonder if native speakers find it more awkward than those of us reading the subtitles. The film was also cut by over twenty minutes for American theaters; I'd be interested to see if the full 128-minute version works better.

"The Promise" is flawed, but its flaws of excess. It's like eating a big bowl of premium ice cream, delicious even if it gives you a heck of a headache by the time you reach the bottom.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13665&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/09/06 11:02:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/20/06 William Goss A gaudy spectacle of excess best viewed as parody. 2 stars
5/05/06 Heather Runyan didn't like it at all 2 stars
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  05-May-2006 (PG-13)



Directed by
  Chen Kaige

Written by
  Chen Kaige

  Hiroyuki Sanada
  Nicholas Tse
  Jang Dong-Kun
  Cecilia Cheung

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