When slave Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun) thwarts a massive charge from enemy forces with his gift of blistering running speed, General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) takes special notice, and orders the meek soul to serve him. Soon hurt in battle, Guangming orders Kunlun to put on his prized crimson armor and protect the king in the Imperial City. Once there, Kunlun spies a beautiful princess named Qingchang (Cecilia Cheung) in peril. Killing the king to free her, Kunlun rides off into the Chinese countryside with Qingchange, setting a course for romantic confusion, enemies and assassins looking for revenge, and a promise once made by Qingchang that must be respected.
After the pyrotechnics and wonderment of such recent classical Asian fare like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero," and "The House of Flying Daggers," what makes "Promise" stand out from the pack is that it holds the record for the largest budget yet for a Chinese motion picture production. And by golly, every single penny is on that screen.
"Promise" is such a richly prepared, visually lavish film that it stuns the eye, while the brain grows increasingly fatigued. Renowned writer/director Chen Kaige ("Farewell my Concubine") has been down this historical epic road before, with 1999's "Emperor and the Assassin," but here the idea of high flying fantasy has caught his fancy, and his imagination often outpaces the story being told.
"Promise" gushes with special effects, some of them better than others, but all servicing an ambitious idea of archetypal Asian fantasy filmmaking that is just ending its second wind. Thankfully, "Promise" is ferociously paced, with Kaige packing on the swordplay and dynamic feats of speed and strength to keep the film busy. With so much attention to extravagant costumes (reminding me, oddly enough, of the Dino DeLaurentiis "Flash Gordon" remake from 1980), outlandish sets (including one that presents a villain in a giant birdcage), and shimmering special effects, it goes without saying that the picture is a gorgeous creation, creatively rendered by Kaige and his team with serious attention to detail and grandeur.
However, towering CGI can only get you so far. At some point the story needs to take over and give the audience something to invest in. The moment never arrives in "Promise," leaving this eye candy icy to the touch. Kaige scripts time-honored emotional movements, sneaking in a three-way love story and the tragic past of a brutal character, but the warmth is lacking when sandwiched between so much artifice and majesty. These characters are written with needed depth (and performed wonderfully), but Kaige can't make them pop off the screen in the same manner as his ballistic action sequences. It leaves "Promise" uneven, and ultimately unremarkable – an absurd idea when one ponders all the time and money that went into this film to prevent such a reaction.
Also see the review of the Limited Edition Import DVD of The Promise
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