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  Publicity Stills of "The Promise"
(Courtesy from Encore Films)

Genre: Epic Swordplay Fantasy
Director: Chen Kaige
Starring: Jang Dong-gun, Cecilia Cheung, Hiroyuki Sanada, Nicholas Tse, Liu Ye
RunTime: 2 hrs 8 mins
Released By: GV & Encore Films
Rating: PG

Opening Day: 15 December 2005

Synopsis :

This epic fantasy revolves around a love triangle between a general, a princess and a slave. A young woman (played by Cecilia CHEUNG) is the most beautiful princess in the world. Spoiled by the King, she lives a life of extreme luxury. But this life comes with a price in that she will never enjoy true love unless time can flow backwards and the dead can come back to life. The slave (played by JANG Dong-Gun), who is sincerely in love with her, uses his ability to run ‘faster than the wind’ to break the chain that fate has put on her.

Movie Review:

Touted as the “biggest Asian fantasy epic ever produced”, “The Promise” delivers – up to a point. While one gets a vague feeling of being in the presence of something big while watching this, the pay-off in terms of drama and extravagance in Chen Kaige’s latest masterpiece is lacking and awkward.

The story is basically a sort-of love triangle between a General (Hiroyuki Sanada), an accursed Princess who will never experience love (Cecilia Cheung) and a nomadic slave (Jang Dong Gun), and then an evil Duke (Nicholas Tse) is thrown in for good measure together with a sorceress (Chen Hong) and a mysterious assassin (Liu Ye). The Sorceress is somewhat of a sprite, but the riddles and prophecies she reveals are flimsy, less clever than she thinks they are and worse, not even revisited in the climax.

The climax, where the Princess realizes what the audience already knows, has potential to anchor the film and give it some sentimental weight but as with the rest of “The Promise”, it delivers up to a point. We’re shown what the climax is, but the film never reaches it. Cecilia Cheung tries her best, but the script’s vague idealism limits her, as it limits Hiroyuki Sanada’s character. While deliciously expanded in his queer heinousness, Nicholas Tse’s character is too much androgyny and too little malevolence: is it the script, or the actor – or both?

Yet this is no doubt a film made explicitly for the cinemas: the unreal vibrancy of colours looks stunning on a big screen. An entire army in brilliant crimson armour; a village dubbed Snowland; the sets are created in such extreme primary colours that they seem to stand as testaments to how far the filmmakers are willing to take this fantasy genre. However, in all the attempted extravagance, this film still comes up short as many of the visuals are ultimately superfluous and purposeless, conveying not so much a sense of a mystical world than a sense of the movie’s prodigious budget. While careful balance between storyline, sets and animation enriched movies like the beloved “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the balance is badly executed here; the movie comes off looking like a colourful and confused offspring of a lot of kitschy ideas.

Claiming to be set “3000 years ago in the future, somewhere in Asia,” Chen definitely tries to create in “The Promise” a mood that is different from other Asian period movies, but his is a half-hearted effort because the landscape is less “somewhere in Asia” than “obviously Chinese”. The problem with this is that audiences will be expecting a good ol’ Chinese period drama by no fault of their own, and when they’re fed with a CGI man crawling faster than the horde of CGI oxen chasing him, you can’t blame them for laughing nervously. There are limits to fantasy in an Asian setting and crossing swords weightlessly atop a bamboo forest is about as far as you can go. The middle ground that the movie occupies: a yes-no-maybe Chinese period movie in a yes-no-maybe Chinese background, is therefore awkward and quite simply, it doesn’t work.

The fighting scenes are perhaps the movie’s saving graces, together with some bits of acting here and there. The action choreography is meticulous and satisfying; this is where the sets and cinematography really benefit the movie. Seasoned actor Hiroyuki Sanada is appropriately cocky as the General and does a fine job encompassing the character’s sensual and increasingly emotional experience, and easily outshines his fellow cast mates, who seem like dispensable amateurs beside the nuance of Sanada’s performance.

The premise of the film is the theme of destiny and fate, but these are abstract and general ideas only fully achievable by the subtlest of films, and “The Promise” is certainly not it. In a word, “The Promise” is tackier than it is fantasy, and coming from the auteur that brought us “Yellow Earth” and “Farewell My Concubine”, we’re probably entitled to expect much more.

Movie Rating:

(A fantasy epic that’s neither appropriately fantastical nor impressively epic; a disappointing showing from Chen Kaige)

Review by Angeline Chui


. Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (2008)

. An Empress And The Warriors (2008)

. The Curse of the Golden Flowers (2006)

. A Battle of Wits (2006)

. Seven Swords (2005)

. House of Flying Daggers (2004)



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