After the crossover successes of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou's Hero and House of Flying Daggers, director Chen Kaige must've thought, "I gotta get me some of that." Unfortunately, the increasingly pandering instincts of the filmmaker behind Farewell, My Concubine result in a cartoony near-parody of the mythological martial arts film.
Chen quickly squanders the goodwill earned by a graceful storybook prelude. A girl named Qingcheng agrees to a trade with goddess Manshen (Hong Chen): prosperity and beauty will be hers, but all of her loving relationships will end badly. As the grown Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung), she regrets her choice, but her fate can only be reversed by drastically unnatural conditions. You know, the kind of stuff that never happens. Snow falling in spring and the dead coming back to life. Give up hope, girlfriend! Hmm.
In a tastelessly computer-generated battle scene that comes off as more hyperbolic than epic, Chen introduces Kunlun (Dong-Kun Jang), the slave of General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada). Here, the director appears to be making something along the lines of Kung Fu Hustle, except Chen turns out not to be kidding, even when he has Guangming fighting with what appear to be two big brass balls. When the camera slows down long enough for Chen to frame an image, he manages some pretty compositions, and some may respond to the florid, romantic emotionalism of the relatively quiet moments, in which Quingcheng and Kunlun work out their romantic complications.
Chen's occasionally beautiful imagery also has darker expressions, like the princess trapped in a gilded cage, but Chen always goes a step too far (Kunlun flying Quingcheng like a kite). If it weren't for a sex scene, The Promise might have made a suitable martial arts fantasy for kids. Unfortunately, flimsy, fake-looking weaponry, bad wigs, grandiose scoring, overacting, simplistic dialogue, illogically elaborate staging, and a plot that goes out of its way to be predictable all contribute to the overall impression that The Promise is simply, as the kids used to say, lame.
[NOTE: Taking a page from the Weinstein playbook, Warner Independent has lopped twenty-six minutes off of Chen's original cut. Perhaps those missing minutes would provide more depth, balance, and good taste than the 102-minute cut display, but then again, they'd also make The Promise twenty-six minutes longer.]