Before it was picked up by Warner Independent Pictures, Chen Kaige’s The Promise became another (
To best appreciate The Promise, one should not take anything about the film seriously. Save for the enthralling cinematography, courtesy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Oscar winning lensman Peter Pau, which is rich in its picturesque beauty, saturated colors and breadth. Save also for the exquisitely designed and distinctively colored costumes – bright red for the Crimson Armor, silver/black for the Duke’s soldiers, unkempt, dirty-looking grayish brown for the slaves, and black and shrouded for the mysterious Assassin – courtesy of Chen Tongxun. Yet they are all in too pristine a condition to be authentic, without the usual signs of being worn that would be expected given the backgrounds of all the characters. I believe both costumes and cinematography, especially the latter, would compensate for The Promise’s shortcomings: lack of character focus, thin storyline too heavily peppered with dialogue that is basically a string of insubstantial poetic abstracts, conspicuously bad CGI, and superficial acting. Most
So what is The Promise? A girl breaks promise to be slave to a boy, beguilingly accepts a goddess’ offer of a life of riches and celebrated beauty at the price of losing every man she loves, and as a princess becomes the object of a three-way battle between a slave, a general and a duke; and a slave disguises as a general, assassinates the emperor to rescue a princess who mistakenly falls for someone else, and goes to rescue her (physically and spiritually) while in search of memories of family he once had before being sold to slavery at a young age. Kaige chooses the fantasy genre as a platform for this story. While a film of this genre can have fantastic plot ideas and developments that do not have to be logical or sensible, The Promise unfortunately has too much of both to the point of defying suspension of disbelief. Despite the reason for The Promise to have a story, and the first character to be introduced, Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Chung) appears sporadically throughout the film. She is largely overshadowed by the three lead male characters. As a human character, she has neither depth nor any set of qualities to elicit interest or sympathy, all of which are further reinforced by Cecilia Chung’s wooden acting.
There is something else that does not make sense. Who is the Duke and what motivates his malice? Well, Duke Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse) is young, handsome, haughty, speaks softly and carries a big stick (in his case, a staff). He is also a deadly fighter, a fact he demonstrates when
One other significance instance of really bad CGI is the representation of Manshen the Goddess (Chen Hong). It is painfully obvious Hong’s scenes are filmed separately from the other actors. The interaction is so mechanical, a mere purveying of words and motions without any soul (even goddesses have souls). Speaking of motions, what’s with the floating ribbons? If you look at the surrounding leaves of trees and grasses, even the hairs of the characters she is speaking to, they sway to a completely different rhythm than that of her ribbons. The only rational explanation is that the Goddess may be submerged somewhere in the
The acting is a consequence of poor writing and disconnecting interpretations than a deliberate effort to be superficial. A pot of potentially good ideas already stretched to their thinnest are filled in by the lead actors each of whom has his or her own ideas in playing the part without including the others’. Hong’s efforts are botched by bad CGI of her character. Chung is not only wooden but also shallow. Much of her character’s best material is in the prologue, but that is her younger self played by a child actress. In fact, that actress and fellow child actor who played the younger version of Duke Wuhuan give the only warm performances in the entire film. The rest are either icy or lukewarm. As for the action, look further towards the likes of House of Flying Daggers, Warriors of Heaven and Earth and the upcoming Jet Li film Fearless. Those films deliver. The Promise holds true to its namesake but does not. Excessive wirework and many confrontations, but little of actual fighting. The little of actual fighting that occurs is frequently distracted by the constant leaping about as one chases after the other.
This is what $35 million – the most expensive production in the history of mainland Chinese cinema – went into. What were you thinking, Chen Kaige? With all the stunning visuals in cinematography and costumes, The Promise would have worked better as a music video and still present the director’s purported message about “love, freedom and destiny”. The script reeks of poor execution and illogical in every respect. In an early scene (after the prologue), the Crimson Armor buys 132 slaves (
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