Promise, The (China/Hong Kong/Japan/South Korea, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Chen Kaige's The Promise is a beautiful film, filled with stylized, CGI-enhanced foregrounds and backgrounds that look like they were lifted directly from fairy tale-inspired paintings. There's not much about the look of The Promise that's realistic, but that's part of its limited charm. Unfortunately, the other production elements cannot live up to the visual aspects. The over-the-top acting is forgivable, but the plot's incoherence is not. The movie appears to have been edited with pruning shears. Huge chunks of storyline have been lost. One key that something is wrong can be found by looking at the running length. The U.S. version is 102 minutes long. The original Chinese cut is 128 minutes. With nearly 25% of material eliminated, is it any wonder that The Promise often makes no sense?

There are also problems with character identification, although these could also be attributable to the editing. Whatever the cause, however, the movie fails to present protagonists who are sufficiently fleshed out for us to care about them. Everyone in The Promise is a cardboard type. The characters are supposed to be caught in the grasp of an epic tragedy, yet the film proves unable to generate an emotional response in the viewer. We are enraptured by how everything looks, and care very little about the men and women moving through this panorama.

As a young girl, Qingcheng, makes a bargain with a goddess. In return for wealth, beauty, and prestige, she agrees never to have lasting true love. Every man she falls in love with will die - at least until time runs backward, it snows in the summer, and the dead come back to life. (Since this is a fantasy story, one can be reasonably certain that there are ways for these seemingly impossible conditions to be met.) Years later, when next we meet Qingchen (the stunning Cecilia Cheung), she is a princess. She is rescued a warrior she believes to be General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanda). In reality, her savior is Guangming's servant, Kunlun (Jang Dong-Kun), wearing his master's armor. Heedless of Qingchen's curse, the princess and the general begin a life of domestic bliss. Meanwhile, Kunlun goes walkabout and discovers that his people were wiped out by the evil Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse). Kunlun is taught the secret of running faster than "the speed of time" by the only other survivor of the Snow Wolf people (Liu Ye). He then returns to claim his heart's desire: Qingcheng. But there are two others vying for her affections: Guangming, who is with her under false pretenses, and Wuhuan, who will do anything to capture her and place her in a gilded cage.

If only The Promise played out on screen as well as it sounds on the written page... The story has the potential to be an epic melodrama filled with doomed love and great acts of heroism. Unfortunately, the product delivered to American theaters by Warner Independent lacks passion and coherence. It is jarringly disjointed, especially during the first half. Things eventually get on track, but we're not invested enough in the characters or their plight for the predictable conclusion to have much meaning.

At times, The Promise feels like a diluted version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero (and those films, of course, come from a long line of Chinese martial arts epics). It has the visual style and the martial arts, although they are less important, and less impressive, here. But it is a pretender. Chen's movie promises more than it delivers, doing more things wrong than right. Perhaps this is as much the fault of the distributor, which demanded a shorter running length, than the director, but the only version I have available is the one being released in North American theaters, and it's a disappointment. Chen can do better - his Farewell My Concubine was magnificent - but, despite its impressive budget, The Promise is not kept.

Promise, The (China/Hong Kong/Japan/South Korea, 2005)

Director: Chen Kaige
Cast: Jang Dong-Kun, Hiroyuki Sanda, Cecilia Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Liu Ye
Screenplay: Chen Kaige
Cinematography: Peter Pau
Music: Klaus Badelt
U.S. Distributor: Warner Independent
Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2006-05-05
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: English subtitled Mandarin Chinese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1