With an award-winning director and cinematographer at the helm, a selection of the most talented up-and-coming actors from across Asia in starring roles and a story packed with Eastern mysticism, martial arts action and romance, The Promise has all the makings of a sure-fire winner along the lines of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. However, unlike those movies, the, ahem, promise it showed on paper does translate to the finished film.
Set in a mythical China, the story focuses on the love triangle of superpowered slave Kunlun (Jang), the warlike General Guangming (Sanada) and the beautiful princess Qingcheng (Cheung), who has been cursed by a god as a child so that any man who she loves will die. If that wasn’t problematic enough, enter the evil Wuhuan (Tse), who has designs on Qingcheng for himself and wants to defeat and dishonour Guangming while enslaving Kunlun. The makings are there for a classic tale of love, redemption and fulfilling one’s destiny, with lots of action thrown in for good measure, all told by the talented Farewell My Concubine director Kaige Chen and captured by the sumptuous eye of Crouching Tiger and The Forbidden Kingdom’s cinematographer Peter Pau. So when The Promise’s whole fails to be as great as the sum of its parts, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed.
Despite some impressive settings, magnificent costumes and stylish cinematography from Pau, which has a fantasy anime-like look to it, the story is a mess, perhaps due to the edit for Western audiences as a much longer version was released in Asia. And, for the most expensive film ever made in Hong Kong, the CGI is surprisingly appalling, being not much of a step up from the embarrassing Scorpion King in The Mummy 2. Equally, the fight sequences, while thrilling in places, are often given a superpowered cartoon-ish edge that does not sit well with the otherwise rather poignant story. There are some highlights. The performances throughout are good with Tse, in particular having fun with his admittedly one-dimensional villain. Liu Yeh is equally charismatic as Wuhuan’s tortured assassin, Snow Wolf and Cheung, too, makes a fine Chinese princess, capturing the right mix of vulnerability and strength that comes as a prerequisite for female characters in martial arts epics. Koreon actor Jang shows flashes of the brilliance that caught the eye in Brotherhood, as does Sanada, who is probably the most recognizable actor to Western audiences, with the Japanese star having had prominent parts in The Last Samurai, Sunshine and Rush Hour 3, although both were criticised in the Chinese press for their Mandarin accents. The film has its moments, too – one scene where the princess uses her sexual allure to defeat a whole army is particularly startling and there’s an exhilarating fight between Wuhuan and Snow Wolf – but the overall impression is one of ‘how did it all go wrong?’
EXTRAS As listed on the BBFC website: An interview with director Chen Kaige; other interviews with cast and crew; a behind-the-scenes featurette