I’m a sucker for Chinese martial arts fantasies, the sort of movies in which warriors fly the air, so courageous and passionate that even the laws of physics can’t bind them to the ground. The previews for The Promise made me smile with anticipation. Gorgeous costumes, dance-like battles, mythic stories, and a tragic woman escaping from a birdcage — what’s not to love?
A lot, as it turns out. The Promise is no feast for the eyes; it’s cheap fast food: synthetic, flavorless and dull.
The hero of The Promise is Kunlun, a slave from the Land of Snow, where people have the speed and emotional depth of Wile E. Coyote’s nemesis, the Road Runner. When a mysterious assassin injures his master, the Crimson General, Kunlun agrees to fill in for the wounded warrior. Decked out in the ornate Crimson Armor, Kunlun botches his mission but captures the heart of the beautiful Qingcheng, whose title reads princess but whose job description more closely matches that of a courtesan. The General considers it a happy accident that the princess/courtesan has fallen for him, however mistakenly, but his fantasy of a blissful domestic life with her is endangered by the fact that dear little Qingcheng is cursed to always lose the man she loves. Meanwhile, Kundun is still pining in the background for the lovely lady, the mysterious assassin is still lurking in the shadows, and Wuhuan, the pretty-boy sadist who sent the killer, is still plotting against them all.
The Promise clearly aims for mythic, but poor pacing and worse acting suck the passion from the story. True, none of the actors have much to work with here, but even taking that into account, their performances are rather dreadful. Cecilia Cheung’s Qingcheng has two expressions, confused and coquettish, and her coquette has all the subtlety and charm of Paris Hilton. (That’s not a compliment.) Sadly, Cheung is a step ahead of Jang Dong-Gun, who plays Kundun. He never gets past confused, wearing the same wide-eyed, empty-headed glaze for most of the movie. As for Nicholas Tse in the role of Wuhuan, he has a magnificent sneer but all the menace of a Pokémon villain.
But it’s not just the characters who are as a flat as a facile video game; the look of the movie screams Nintendo, too. Nothing in The Promise comes close to rivaling the battle amid the bamboo in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; the echo dance in House of Flying Daggers; or the autumnal showdown between Maggie Cheung and Ziyi Zhang in Hero. I can’t comprehend how Peter Pau, the cinematographer of the gorgeous Crouching Tiger, could also be responsible for the over-saturated, plastic world of The Promise.
To make matters worse, many of the key fight sequences obviously take place on movie sets, giving them an airless, artificial quality. The choreography of the battles is pedestrian, and the special effects are laughable. Kundun’s super-sprinting, for example, looks much like a marginal actor jogging in front of a rear-projection screen. (I’m sure it’s more high-tech than that, but whatever it is, it doesn’t help me suspend my disbelief.)
The Promise supposedly is the most expensive movie ever made in China, but I’m at a loss to see where the money went. If I were the studio exec in question, I’d ask for an audit.