The Promise (Wu Ji)

Film review by Lee Alon

As the badly-subtitled intro to this hype-tastic number comes on screen, something suitably "mystical" gets muttered about how gods allow humans to choose their fate while obscuring the outcome of decisions taken. How true, how apt. For example, a human forks over hard earned moola for a movie ticket, hoping for the best. Then, these anonymous gods scheme their dastardly plots, dashing all wishes for a pleasurable cinematic experience, delivering instead a two-hour tragedy of mistakes any mortal would sooner forget. Thanks a lot, Chen Kaige. As if being tormented by his laboriously over-sentimental Together a few years ago wasnít enough. Granted, this fifth generation wunderkind has had a few successes, most notably the epic Emperor and the Assassin (this writer never took to Temptress Moon or Farewell My Concubine), but here we see him shamed by a product so lacking, so flawed, it'll take Mr. Chen much to make proper amends.

The Promise features a compelling enough story. It could even have been outright gripping in the hands of directors like Ching Siu Tung or Raymond Lee, even Corey Yuen. Those guys would see this tale for its, tsk tsk, promise: the ability to be a whacked-out, gung ho wuxia marathon teeming with insane antics and exaggerated martial arts capabilities. Instead, someone trusted a supervisor better suited to History Channel specials on the Mongol invasions, resulting in a slow-paced, awkward exercise handicapped by lame fight scenes and effects that do little more than embarrass viewers into cringing in their seats. This echoes other movies, namely Hero. That one also had a director ill-prepared for an action story, hence the pretentious, pompously aloof end-product fared best in putting audiences to sleep. Zhang Yimou did learn a couple of lessons by the time House of Flying Daggers came about, so perhaps Chen Kaige will also emerge stronger later on.
At least for this one he didn't give himself a huge part as per previous films. Rest assured, however, nepotism didn't retire entirely to the nosebleed section. His wife Chen Hong puts in quite the hefty cameo as a coldly aristocratic, and more than a tad annoying, deity, through which the plot gets rolling. We first see a conspicuously blood-less battlefield after hostilities have ended, with scores of troops lying around looking like bored extras out of film school. A little girl known only as Qingcheng scrounges around for food when goddess Chen intervenes, making a pact with the young protagonist. It involves Qingcheng promising to amuse the superior being by enjoying everything life has to offer in exchange for never holding on to love or happiness.
A few half-baked CGI renders later we move 20 years into the future, and to another battlefield, now commanded by General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada). Arrogant and self-assured, the general achieves victory thanks to help from abnormally strong and swift slave Kunlun (Jang Dong-kun). The latter even saves his new master's life soon enough, donning the military man's notorious Crimson Armor. A weak story device sees them embroiled in the death of this unnamed kingdom's monarch, thus more or less becoming outlaws, even though the movie never bothers to really make this clear. The pair then move on to face despotic warlord Wuhuan, done by a passable Nicholas Tse, who tries hard to inject some of that wuxia madness into his villain, but, alas, falls short of attaining this lofty goal. At least he possesses a massive army of cool, Stormtrooper-esque maniacs that are a pleasure to behold, in addition to commanding his own henchman, a counter to Kunlun apparently. Enshrined in a cloak bestowing the gift of flight and faster-than-time travel on its wearer, Wuhuan's errand-killer Snow Wolf (subtitle name, in Chinese he's Ghost Wolf) adds a sad, tragic theme to The Promise, largely thanks to its gifted thespian vehicle, Liu Ye.
That's really not enough, though, and quickly everything goes wrong as the plot reveals itself to have absolutely no driving force, and the would-be clash of titans between the forces of good and evil amounts to less than a storm in a teacup. Maybe a gurgle in a can of soda, unopened at that so nobody even notices. Only Hiroyuki Sanada's input truly deserves positive mention. His characterization of the general behaves naturally as a vain bully with good intentions might, and one learns to buy into his spiel with ease, always the mark of good acting. The cosmopolitan cast composition remains an unused asset given The Promise's numerous problems.
Sadly, the worst offender's Cecilia Cheung, a favorite usually, and one actress who has proven herself time and again in comedy and gritty realism. She plays a grown Qingcheng as the movie's love interest, but just like her director, falls victim to miscasting, either that or they just couldn't get Zhang Ziyi. At any rate, she spends most of her time trying to mimic Crouching Tiger's pouting heroine, resulting in a disastrous mess that's not helped by the atrocious makeup unleashed on the young lass. We can only guess as to why this came to pass, but at the end of the show Cecilia's a major disappointment.
Compound matters with lousy action bits, grating, corny visual effects and desolate interregnums amid plot, and you get The Promise inducing snoozes all around. One thing did keep folks awake was the bombastic soundtrack, so loud and hilariously overdone it drowned dialog in several occasions, which all things considered wasn't too bad a trade-off. Going back to choices and fate, of course one canít always anticipate what lurks behind every bend. But allow us to play oracle briefly, and see into your misty futures: you will lose two hours of your life by watching this. Promise to do something worthwhile instead, like cleaning out your bathroom soap dish or finally getting around to washing that shower curtain. It'll pay back dividends in spades.

Rating: 4/10

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