Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Promise

Title: The Promise aka Wu ji (2005)
Dir: Kaige Chen
Rating: *** and 1/2 out of 5 stars

For The Diamondback....

Take two parts House of Flying Daggers, one part Kung Fu Hustle, and just a dash of LSD, and you have the perfect recipe for Chen Kaige’s The Promise.

This Chinese fairy tale dazzles with surreal visuals and an epic love story set against the backdrop of a mythical land. The cinematography and costume design alone earn the film high marks, even if its cartoonishness occasionally gets out of hand.

When an orphaned girl makes a desperate pact with an enchanted goddess, she gives up ever finding true love in exchange for a life of beauty and riches. Now an adult, Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung) is an adored princess, but regrets her promise since her fate is sealed - she can never have true love.

After a masked slave named Kunlun (Dong-Kun Jang) rescues her, Qingcheng falls for the man she mistakenly believes to be her masked hero – Kunlun’s master, General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada). Although Kunlun loves her too, he is forced to quietly obey his master who has now developed a fondness for the princess. Further complicating the love triangle is Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), an evil Duke who not only wants Qingcheng but desires the throne as well.

The Promise has all the classic elements of a fairy tale: a cursed princess, magical cloaks, eternal life, epic battles, an evil monarch, and above all, love. The hero epitomizes class struggle (ala Aladdin) and yearns to understand where he came from. All these elements have been filmed before, but here they are rejuvenated through the beauty of Chinese culture.

The eccentric visuals are where the film enters love-it-or-hate-it territory. For instance, Kunlun has superhuman speed, a vestige of the magical family he never met. When he races through a stampede of bulls carrying someone on his back, eye rolling is inevitable, but I came to enjoy the surreal visuals. In another scene, Kunlun flies Qingcheng like a kite on a string, which at first seems completely absurd, but is oddly beautiful after all.

As a fantasy, The Promise does not operate on the same plane of realism as most films. Just like when Superman outraces a speeding bullet, or Harry Potter casts a spell, you don’t question how, you just enjoy it.

It seems that the greatest criticism against The Promise is the computer graphics. For instance, the aforementioned stampede of bulls does look rather fake. With a budget of $35 million (making it the most expensive film in Chinese history), even one bad FX shot is frustrating. Still, last year’s King Kong excelled despite those horrible CGI brontosaurs. Perhaps there’s just something about stampeding animals that graphic artists cannot get a grip on.

Even a few weak CGI shots are completely outweighed by the jaw-dropping cinematography in this film. This is not surprising considering its cinematographer Peter Pau also worked on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Further complementing his work are the set design and costumes, which culminate in an all-around beautiful movie.

Critics will undoubtedly draw comparisons to films like Flying Daggers and Hero, but The Promise is not simply a rip-off cashing in on the craze. Chen Kaige takes the subgenre to a new level with his hyper-surreal style and fairy tale narrative.

Granted, it cannot compete with its predecessors as a martial arts film. The fights are not boring, but they wouldn’t exactly win awards for choreography. Furthermore, it lacks the emotional depth of earlier films, but such comparisons are unfair because it is not trying to be those films. The Promise seems unapologetic about its flashiness, which makes it all the more likable. It does not pretend to be anything more than a fantastical opera of color and beauty.

The entire cast is delightful to watch, most notably Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada who learned to speak Mandarin for his role. Tse, a pop star overseas, stands out as the evil Duke with a strange fetish for birds. Another standout role is delivered by Ye Liu as the Duke’s slave and personal assassin, Snow Wolf, who makes for a fascinating antithesis to Kunlun. Kind of like the Venom to Kunlun’s Spider-Man, Snow Wolf too has a gift for speed, but was fated to forever serve a dark master.

Chen Kaige’s colorful fable proves that the course of love never runs smooth, but it can overcome all odds, even the confines of fate and time. Some viewers will not be able to stomach the eccentric graphics, but even its most outlandish shots are no sillier than anything in the cult hit, Kung Fu Hustle. If you maintain an open mind, you should at the very least find beauty in The Promise.