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April 04, 2006

The Promise


Wu Ji
Chen Kaige - 2005
Deltamac Region 0 DVD

Considering the history concerning The Promise being promised to North American viewers, I decided that catching the film on DVD would guarantee that I would see a version of the film closest to Chen Kaige's vision. To make matters somewhat more confusing, the Internet Movie Database lists running times of 128 minutes and 102 minutes for The Promise. The DVD version released in Hong Kong is 121 minutes long. From what I understand, Warner Brothers will be releasing the shorter version of the film.

The Promise is another epic following on the template established by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou, Chen has made a Chinese film geared towards an international audience who may unfamiliar with older, modestly budgeted films made for the local market. A tale of ghosts, revenge and misdirected love, The Promise made me think of Ronny Yu's The Bride with White Hair as reimagined by Michael Bay. Peter Pau's camera never seems to stay still, and there is much reliance on computer generated special effects. Appearing after Hero and House of Flying Daggers, one cannot avoid seeing a formula at work that increased budgets and beautiful cinematography cannot disguise. Of course it is no coincidence that cinematographer Peter Pau shot both Crouching Tiger and Bride.

The pan-Asian cast features Cecila Cheung stepping into what were previously Zhang Ziyi's slippers. Cheung portrays a princess who makes the promise of the title. As a very young orphan, she accepts a life of wealth in exchange for having no love in her life, an offer made to her by a goddess. As a young woman, Cheung is the object of love for several rivals, including Nicholas Tse, Jang Dong-Kun and Sanada Hiroyuki. If the cast is relatively unfamiliar for American audiences, the story appears to similar to preceding Chinese epics. Battles are fought, hearts are broken, gravity is defied.

Aside from the sumptuous look of the film, The Promise has a couple of intriguing set pieces that probably benefit from being seen on a large movie screen. One scene involves a battle featuring a bull stampede. A sword fight takes place in an oversized, circular cage. Almost every visual aspect of The Promise, the sets, the exteriors, the fights, is oversized. One significant difference is that Chen's film features characters who are not platonic, with scenes involving partial nudity and sex with explitness more common to Hong Kong and Korean films. While nothing is as graphic as Chen's maligned Killing Me Softly, the inclusion of sexual dynamics has been part of several of Chen's previous films, particularly Farewell, My Concubine.

For me, Chen's best film is still Emperor and the Assassin. Big in scope and ambition, with a literal cast of thousands, the film's heart is in the relationship between the main characters. With The Promise, Chen occassionally loses his characters and the story to the pile-up of special effects. For all of its surface pleasure, one hopes Chen's next film depends less on artifice and more on honest story-telling.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 4, 2006 12:28 PM