The Promise

© 2005 Beijing 21st Century Shengkai, China Film Group and Moonstone Productions, LLC.
Liu Ye as Snow Wolf in director Chen Kaige’s “The Promise,”
a Warner Independent Pictures release.

“The Promise” is one of those films that begins with, “When the world was young…” Whatever its idiosyncrasies, this mythology-regurgitating film does have some qualities. A young girl steals a biscuit from the hands of a fallen soldier on a battlefield. Instantly, one soldier seems to come alive—a child, actually. He takes the bread but offers it back if she promises to be his slave. The point of this scene is not to be fully understood until later, but then that tends to be exactly the design of most Chinese epic films of late.

Shortly thereafter, she drops the biscuit into the water. The Goddess Manshen (Hong Chen) appears from the sky, returns the biscuit to her, and offers the girl all the riches in the world, but the price is she will lose every man she loves. She accepts, and walks into the distance as the story shifts a few years into the future. We’re taken into the center of a battle between two great armies—one comprised of 3000 warriors and the other of 20,000. In the middle of the battle, a group of slaves are conscripted for a seemingly ambiguous purpose. It turns out they help the red army, led by General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada), to ambush the black army. One of the slaves, Kunlun (Dong-Kun Jang), has apparently superhuman strength and speed. He saves the life of the General, and offers to be his slave. When the General asks why, Kunlun points out that it’s a steady paycheck—more or less.

At first, the story appears to be entirely about Kunlun and his encounter with the Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung). Unaware that it’s Kunlun wearing the General’s armor, Qingcheng is whisked away from a despot king and falls in love with her rescuer. He promises Qingcheng he will not let her die. Remember this, because you can bet it’s going to be relevant later on. And that’s the problem with this movie. While the visuals are often quite beautiful, the film is structurally identical to most other popular Chinese epics which, in my mind, have become the East Asian equivalent of Bollywood Cinema—trash that looks like art to the average viewer.

The music is bombastic and at times deafening, which interrupts your appreciation of the visuals and, more importantly, an element that I feel has been understated in such films: The language. The sonorant phonemes of the Chinese language, when strung together, give us another layer of artistry. Why not capitalize upon it and let it be the driving force of a good story? We’ve already seen countless stunt-wire action sequences, the overuse of color schemes as cultural metaphors, expansive sets and relatively unconvincing CG (e.g. a scene where bulls stampede the black army relies so heavily on computer work that it degenerates the artistic credibility of the film). What about the quality of the character drama? Maudlin, at best.

Set aside, for a moment, though, the drama of General Guangming, Master of the Crimson Armor, and the subterfuge that causes Princess Qingcheng to fall in love with the wrong man. The most fascinating story in the film is not that of Kunlun, but of a mysterious figure he encounters—Snow Wolf (Ye Liu). Like an exile from a Tim Burton flick, Snow Wolf is draped in black, appears to be suffering from clinical depression and, by the way, is cursed. He is sent by Lord Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), a ruthless power-monger with a keen sense of style, to kill General Guangming. The most intriguing character, Snow Wolf appears at first to be the willing assassin of Wuhuan, but turns out to be himself a slave. Thus, he forges a bond with Kunlun.

While the lead characters are superficially tragic, chiefly because Kunlun won’t say the one thing that could straighten out this discombobulated cliché of a love triangle, Snow Wolf’s misery is genuine. He shares with Kunlun his story, and how he came to be accursed by the Lord Wuhuan. He betrayed his own people when he offered himself into slavery but his greatest failure, as he put it, is that he betrayed himself. Whether it was the intention of the director or not, I cannot say, but there’s a symbolic duplicity in Snow Wolf’s countenance. In darkness, the shadowy figure appears angular, chiaroscuro and macabre. However, with shaded portions of his face more visible in the light, he appears younger, gaunt and scarred—a victim of misfortune.

These are the beginnings of character depth, but are not enough to pull the story out of its abysmal routine of recycling archetypes, plotlines and motivations. The circuituous, ironic and avoidable denouement employs a monochromatic irony that reduces the dramatic exposition to aphorism. There are only so many ways to restate the Unrequited Love Curse that ends in Selfless Sacrifice marred at the last second by Ironic and Damning Admission to one’s beloved. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t find a particularly ingenious and previously unconceived way of doing so.

The Promise • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 128 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for stylized violence and martial arts action, and some sexual content. • Distributed by Warner Independent Pictures

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