A review of “The Promise” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: **

Rating: PG-13 for stylized violence and sexual content. In Mandarin with English subtitles

Run Time: 1 hour, 43 minutes



Director Chen Kaige has amassed a wildly impressive body of work that unfortunately does not include this messy fairy tale that speaks to tainted ambition and destiny.

Chen’s fantasy walks a fine line between celluloid beauty and the cheesy old school serial, spinning a cluttered yarn of an enigmatic child princess who makes a pact with the ethereal Goddess Manchen (Chen Hong) to forsake true love for the promise of a pampered life of beauty, riches and power.

Bad news for the three men who ultimately fall for the adult Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung). The first is fierce warrior General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada), a red-robed hero who sends a band of slaves into battle and conquers his enemy with unusual skill and grace.

But the proud Duke of the North (Nicholas Tse) has a different destiny in mind for Guangming, forcing his men to desert him and leaving him to suffer a vision of the aforementioned Goddess, who claims that only an authentic God of War will win the heart of the Princess.

Not to be outdone Guangming defies the Goddess and vows to win the heart of Qingcheng. His trusted slave Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun) marches to his own drummer as he pines for the love of the unattainable Qingcheng while masquerading as the General in his signature crimson armor. All the while battling the nocturnal assassin Snow Wolf (Liu Ye) and butting emotions with the Duke, whose tainted love is of ownership and not of the heart.

Confused? I was. The narrative is a mish-mash of character commotion that takes its sweet time sorting itself out. Chen goes all out in his attempt to tackle the martial-arts fantasy (“Hero”, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” etc.), wallowing in mistaken identity themes and a kaleidoscope of vision and color that scream cinematic circus act.

Gruesome violence, dense scripting and staccato pacing take their toll on the biggest budgeted movie ever made in China, a melodramatic maze of blue-screen frenzy. The visuals are intermittently stunning but it’s a variation on a novel theme turning tired with repetition.

“Love is forever out of your reach” declares one of our heartbroken heroes. So it is with the essence of the overly long fever-dream that is “The Promise”.