The Promise partners director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), Sanada Hiroyuki (The Twilight Samurai), Nicholas Tse (Invisible Target) and Cecilia Cheung (Lost in Time) with a $37 million budget, making it one of the most expensive Chinese films ever made at the time of release. Peter Pau and Tim Yip - both Oscar winners for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - provide the cinematography and art direction, and as a result, The Promise was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 63rd Golden Globe Awards. I still can’t get my head round that one.
A tale of a young princess (Cheung) who is fated never to love after a promise she made as a child. Anyone who falls for her runs the risk of dying a horrible death, like maybe watching this movie on a loop until the end of time. Both General Guangming (Sanada) and rival Wuhuan (Tse) have a thing for the girl, but noble slave Kunlun (Jang) is willing to sacrifice everything he has - including his life - to alter her fate. What a shmuck.
If you make it past the first act you’ve done well. The Promise pushes the realms of fantasy filmmaking to a whole new level, so if you’re aching to see ridiculous feats of strength, implausible acts of honour, laughable CGI set-pieces, and costume design that borrows heavily from Flash Gordon cast-offs, then look no further. The Promise has everything you desire and more. Perhaps I was having a bad day of Jack Bauer sized proportions, who knows, but the first twenty minutes of The Promise were just plain silly. Daft to the point of embarrassing.
Don’t get me wrong, I love fantasy filmmaking, but the opening stampede was dumb with a capital 'duh'. The effects were rubbish. I know I shouldn’t judge a film on GGI alone but when it comes to The Promise, they are pretty hard to ignore. The acting is over the top, the characters are annoying, and it really didn’t bode well for the rest of the movie. Maybe I’m being too critical, because things do improve as the film progresses.
In his defence, Chen could never be described as anything less than ambitious. On a visual level he throws everything at the screen, resulting in a picture at times stunning, at times entangled and at times a confused mess. The budget, though impressive, doesn’t allow for him to reach his goals, rendering many scenes and set pieces hard to swallow. You all ready know if this is your kind of movie though, it’s a film in which everybody can fly, everybody can perform heroic feats of strength, and realism is locked away inside a golden birdcage.
The actors are asked to perform in a movie with very little emotional impact. The plot, with themes of love, destiny and freedom, has been done a thousand times before. The relentless stream of blue/green screen effects can’t have helped the cast because most of the acting is forgettable - with the exception of a monstrously camp turn from Nicholas Tse - which means the denouement lacks conviction, passion and heart.
The Promise remains something of an empty one, despite Chen’s best attempts at filling the screen with diligent distractions. It's a messy fantasy romance that could've held my attention had the effects been as groundbreaking as the filmmakers had envisioned, or the central themes of love and fate upheld true conviction. But much like the story, performances and themes at the heart of the picture, The Promise is a confusing, plodding, unconvincing mess of a movie. It will make you smile, but not for the right reasons. Effects house Centro Digital can take the credit for that one.
Best foreign language film nominee? What was it up against, Pokemon: The Movie? AW