Writer/director Kaige Chen ("Farewell, My Concubine," "The Emperor and the Assassin") has made China's all-time most expensive film, but he hasn't made its best. "The Promise" recalls "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hero," and these epic stories of centuries-ago warriors and princesses, with their magical realism and convoluted backstories, always walk the line between engrossing fantasy and flat-out goofiness. Chen lacks the delicate touch of Ang Lee or Xhang Yimou, though, and "The Promise" falls on the goofy side more often than it should.
Our hero is Kunlun (Dong-Kun Jang), a slave in the army of beloved Gen. Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada). Kunlun can run faster than anyone the general has ever seen, so he takes the obedient servant on as his personal valet.
Wounded in an attack, Guangming sends Kunlun on a mission to save the emperor (Cheng Qian), under siege at his palace. Kunlun dons his master's armor and heads in to save the day, rescuing Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung) in the process -- except that, because of the armor, she thinks he's Gen. Guangming. Later, with the general back in his own costume, he and Qingcheng marry, and she is unaware that her true benefactor is her husband's slave.
Meanwhile, the nefarious and smarmy Gen. Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), the one who besieged the emperor's palace, has it out for Guangming and once hired a black-cloaked assassin called the Snow Wolf (Ye Liu) to dispatch him. Also meanwhile, Princess Qingcheng is concerned about a prophecy the Goddess Manshen (Hong Chen) made years ago: that Qingcheng would lose every man she ever loves.
The plot is even more elaborate than I have suggested, and there is some strange mysticism in the final act that goes over the head of this Western viewer. (I'll blame it on my Westernness, though for all I know it's confusing in China, too.) There are also several times when people are fighting and I'm not entirely sure why. The fighters seem to know, though, and I guess that's the important thing.
With serious performances by good actors, sharp editing and awesome visuals, the film gets more right than wrong, and it's hard to pinpoint, exactly, where the wrongness is. You just feel it, somewhere in the unreal story and its larger-than-life presentation. It's not a bad movie by any means; it just fails to be as great as its individual components would suggest.