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Promise, The (2006)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Sticky Buns--the cause and solution to all of life's problems!"
4 stars

The early word on the new Chinese adventure epic “The Promise” was that it was kind of an artistic disaster– critics complained that it told a story that managed to be both childishly simplistic and unfathomably impenetrable, that the elaborate special effects were actually pretty cheesy in quality and that director Chen Kaige, best known for the award-winning “Farewell My Concubine,” had abandoned whatever artistic principles he might have once possessed in an effort to score a big international hit in the way that fellow Asian filmmakers Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou did with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero.” Having seen the film for myself, I can’t really disagree with any of those complaints–it is simplistic yet confusing, the effects never look particularly realistic and Chen is clearly swinging for the box-office fences in a way that he never has before (with admitted success–the film, the most expensive ever produced in China, became that country’s third-biggest-ever release after its debut last December). However, while those assessments may be true, it doesn’t take away from the unquestionable fact that the film is a cheerfully screwball extravaganza that is as unapologetically goofy as it is shamelessly entertaining and believe me, it is really, really goofy.

Set in a long-ago time, “The Promise” opens with the sight of Qingcheng, a poverty-stricken young girl wandering amongst the fallen warriors of a recent battle. She steals a sticky bun from a corpse and is immediately set upon by a young boy dressed in soldier’s clothing who tells her she can keep it if she agrees to become his slave. She agrees but immediately betrays him and runs off by herself and is later visited by an enchanted spirit who offers her the gifts of beauty, power and the riches of the world with only one hitch–she will never find lasting love and anyone who falls for her will be fatally cursed. Seeing no downside to this arrangement, Qingcheng agrees and when we next see her (in the form of Cecilia Cheung), she is a fabulously beautiful royal concubine who has never yet experienced true love with someone who has lived to tell about it for very long.

Meanwhile, the powerful General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) is about to send his troops into battle against an oncoming army of barbarians in an enormous canyon. To protect his real soldiers from the first attack wave–one involving a herd of stampeding bulls–Guangming send a group of slaves into the canyon first to serve as cattle fodder. Astonishingly, one slave, Kunlun (Dong-Kun Jang), is so speedy that he not only manages to outrun the oncoming bulls, he manages to send them right back at the warriors that sent them in the first place. Although Guangming receives all the credit, he knows that it was Kunlun who saved the day and makes him his personal slave as a reward. When word gets out that the king is in trouble and needs rescuing, Guangming gives Kunlun his distinctive armor and sends him off to save the king instead. (How to tell which one is the king? “He will be the only one without a weapon.”) Without going into too much detail, Kunlun does something that wins the love of Qingcheng and the rage of others–both believing, of course, that Guangming himself was responsible–and the three find themselves embroiled in a tricky triangle that fate has led unexpectedly led them to their entire lives.

See what I mean about the story of “The Promise” being more than a little goofy? Thankfully, instead of approaching the story in a self-serious matter, Chen has instead fully embraced its over-the-top nature and the result has the reckless energy and can-I-top-this? spirit of a mega-budget fantasy epic created by a 12-year-old kid in the throes of a sugar rush. I realize that this is the kind of thing that most people might find unendurable but I tend to have a soft spot for such reckless silliness–this is why I have always admired the similarly screwy output of Luc Besson. While the story may not make a hell of a lot of sense in the details (especially since the version playing here is 18 minutes longer than the original Chinese cut), it is one that so broadly iconic that anyone can figure out the broad strokes of the tale–concepts such as lust, power, greed, jealously and true love have a way of transcending language and culture. The actors also take a similar approach to their work as well–their characters are less people than grand archetypes and they respond in kind with appropriately stylized performances that are as good as can be expected in a film of this type.

Even the admittedly rough and occasionally ragged special effects–including a lot of wobbly CGI work--give the proceedings a more fantastical feel than could have been achieved with slicker and more realistic visual pyrotechnics. Take the scene in which Kunlun outruns those bulls–it isn’t convincing in any way, shape or form but I defy anyone to explain how such a scene could look realistic under any circumstance and how the film could have been better if they somehow had figured out how to believably pull it off. I am certain that you and I will both see better special effects in the upcoming onslaught of summer blockbusters but I am just as certain that none of them will stick in the mind as long as those seen here.

“The Promise” isn’t perfect–it is a little too aimless at times and some of the final revelations are too silly to be believed–and it pales in comparison both to the likes of such martial-arts epics as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “House of Flying Daggers” and to such recent visual feasts as “Ultraviolet,” “V For Vendetta” and “Silent Hill.” Nevertheless, it is an undeniably entertaining exercise in flamboyant excess that should thrill and amuse those with a taste for such things. Additionally, I guarantee that after watching this film, you will never regard a simple sticky bun in the same way again.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13665&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/04/06 23:38:42
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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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