The Promise

It's always interesting to see what movies are successful in other countries.  It's one thing for arthouse films to make it over; it's another to see popular movies from around the world.  The Promise is one of the most successful films in China ever.  It is also the most expensive Chinese film to date (at $35M, a paltry sum for domestic films).  From an American point of view, it is a paradox.  The film looks both beautiful and cheesy.  The story is a bit on the thin side, but Klaus Badelt's (Ultraviolet, 16 Blocks) score is wonderful.  On a really interesting note (that most English speakers will not notice), a Japanese and Korean are speaking Mandarin.

It is the latest film in the new subgenre spawned by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (that includes Hero and House of Flying Daggers) - soaring wuxia historical epics that mix gorgeous cinematography, historical Chinese settings, and stunning martial arts.  The Promise is definitely beautiful, but somehow manages to look a bit cheap at the same time.  The colors are vibrant, and the costumes are intricate, but they still manages to look a bit cheap.  The same goes for the martial arts.  Writer/director Chen Kaige (Together, Killing Me Softly) decided to tinker with the speed during the fights, speeding things up for seconds at a time before putting things back to normal.  It has the same effect as lip-synching in old martial arts movies - it casts an unintentionally humorous tone on the film.  The same goes for some of the special effects.  A slave outruns a herd of CGI bulls with his master on his back.  The same slave flies a woman like a kite. Conceptually, it sounds great, but the results are very mixed.

The story doesn't have the emotional resonance that Chen wishes it did.  The Promise is a love triangle that never fully materializes, and plays it a bit too safe at times.  General Guanming (Hiroyuki Sanada, The White Countess, The Last Samurai) agrees to take on Kunlun (Jang Dong-Kun, TaeGukGi, The Coast Guard) as a slave after seeing his utter devotion and amazing abilities.  China is at war, and Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse, Moving Targets, The Medallion) wants the throne.  While disguised as Guanming, Kunlun kills the emperor to save Qingcheng (Cecilia Chung, One Night in Mongkok, Sex and the Beauties).  Kunlun instantly falls in love with Qingcheng, who falls in love with somebody she believes to be Guanming.

Long ago, Qingcheng made a pact with the Goddess Manshen (Chen Hong, Together, A Story of Xiangxiang).  In return for great beauty, she would lose everybody she loved.  The only way to reverse this was to have time flow backwards and have the dead rise.  Qingcheng, resigned to this fact, refuses to fall in love, knowing that it will eventually end.  Kunlun discovers her secret and vows to break the curse.  Meanwhile, Wuhuan discovers that it was Kunlun who killed the emperor and not Guanming.  It all sounds like it could be an exciting, sweeping love story, but plays out mundanely.

Mongoose Rates It: Not That Good.
1 hour, 42 minutes, Rated PG-13 for stylized violence and martial arts action, and some sexual content.

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