The Promise (Review)
aka Wu ji
Jang Dong-Kun as Kunlun
Hiroyuki Sanada as General Guangming
Cecilia Cheung as Princess Qingcheng
Nicholas Tse as Duke Wuhuan
Liu Ye as Snow Wolf (Ghost Wolf)
Chen Hong as Goddess Manshen
Qian Cheng as The Emperor
Directed by Chen Kaige
Chen Kaige brings you the most expensive film in Chinese history, with a budget of 282,572,490 Yuan ($35 Million.) Does this increase in budget bring us a film far superior to many to exit China? The answer is sadly no. What should be an outstanding film with beautiful images instead becomes an example in mediocrity, a living example that more money does not make a better film, something that Hollywood should be learning for the past 10 years, but somehow isn’t picking up. The Promise reminds me of the lyrics of Linkin Park’s In The End: “I tried so hard and got so far, but in the end it doesn’t even matter.” Now before I scare all of you off with more Linkin Park lyrics, let me explain myself. This movie tries to be a great Chinese epic, and tries to be a beautiful film, and tries to be an international success. But in the end, all of that is for naught, because the film isn’t well written. The main weakness is with the story, and following that, the special effects the story tried to portray. I’m used to bad CGI in films, but in something that’s supposed to be a beautiful epic the results are jarring, looking cartoonish and pulling you out of the fantasy element into the world of Bugs Bunny.
Chen Kaige is an important Chinese director, with films such as Farewell My Concubine and Yellow Earth under his belt. Chen has unfortunately fallen prey to the Crouching Tiger-phenomenon of producing big budget costumed epics for foreign distribution. As evidenced by entries such as Hero, even beautiful choreography cannot make up for the fact that a bad story is a bad story. Stunning visuals make good eye candy, but don’t hold up in the long run. Hero will be remembered for it’s visuals, not for anything else. As for The Promise, I am hard pressed to think what is memorable in the film, and will probably go down in the annuls of history as just another failed epic. This is depressing considering the director, and the cast. Cecilia Cheung headlines as the Princess Qingcheng, a woman promised all the material world comforts by the Goddess Manshen, but in exchange everyone she falls in love with will die (unless a bunch of stuff happens.) She’s joined in Goddess-messing-with-their-lives by General Guangming, played by Hiroyuki Sanada of Twilight Samurai and Legend of the Eight Samurai fame, who is told that he will never win another battle and will fail to save the threatened Emperor. Finally, slave Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun of 2009: Lost Memories) is gifted with extraordinary speed and loyaly serves his master, which becomes General Guangming early on in the film. Kunlun manages to kill the Emperor and fall in love with Princess Qingcheng, who thinks he was General Guangming. We also have Nicholas Tse running around (of 240 days community service fame) as Duke Wuhuan, the guy who causes trouble. That’s probably his official title, as that’s all he does in the movie.
Let’s do a quick plot run through before we say more, and during which we’ll say more. You know you love it! We start out a long time ago in China on a recent battlefield, where dead soldiers lie everywhere. A child (a girl, but it’s not evident at the time) searches through the bodies for food, and finds a biscuit, and later some boots. It turns out that the body she grabs boots off of isn’t dead, and it’s a trap to capture her, slinging her up by rope from a tree. The fake dead body is another child, an arrogant boy who claims ownership of the dead as they belong to his father, and says he will only let her go if she agrees to be his slave. She agrees, so he lets her down, but she asks to see his helmet. He gives it to her, but she uses it to smack him upside the head and escape. Farther away, she drops the biscuit into a river, and starts crying. She’s comforted by the Goddess Manshen, who floats out of nowhere to tell the girl her mother is dead, and make her an offer (one she can’t refuse) by putting a horse head in her bed! Just kidding. As detailed earlier, the offer is all the material world comforts she desires but everyone she falls in love with will die (unless all these crazy things happen.) She readily accepts the offer.
We now switch time to a long time ago plus about 15 years or so, where a battle is a’ brewin’! General Guangming, the Master of the Crimson Armor (so named because he and his troops all wear crimson armor) is preparing to fight 20,000 barbarians with his 3,000 troops. Instead of reenacting the Battle of Thermopylae, General Guangming buys around 180 slaves (including the slavemaster!) and will use them as round one to be slaughtered, then his army will crush the celebrating Barbarians. This plan seems odd, since the slaves are all dressed in rags not crimson armor, and there is only 180 instead of 3,000. I guess Barbarians are stupid. This battle will take place in a canyon, and the slaves are sent marching. One of these slaves is Kunlun, who is gifted with running very very fast. We’ll find out later it’s because he’s from the Land of Snow. No, not the North Pole! Though that would be cool…perhaps Kunlun is Santa’s cousin! The slaves are herded down into the valley, but the crafty barbarians send a herd of cattle on stampede directly at them! The slaves run, and many get trampled. Kunlun can dodge the bulls due to his great speed, and he rescues his master as well, as he’s a good slave (aka a sucker!) Carrying his master on his back, Kunlun reaches the Crimson Army camp, who are shooting the fleeing slaves with arrows for running and thus disobeying orders. Kunlun runs to the front of the stampede, and then directs the bulls back around, and into the direction of the waiting Barbarians! The Barbarians are run down, and then the Crimsom Army attacks, and defeats the remaining Barbarians.
After the battle, General Guangming makes Kunlun his new slave, which Kunlun accepts as his old master is dead, and he would get food if the General’s slave. General Guangming rides around on his horse as Kunlun runs alongside. A message is sent that the Emperor is in trouble, and General Guangming races to save him, with Kunlun by his side. Unfortunately, they get lost in the middle of a bamboo field, and split up to find the way out. General Guangming gets a visit from the Goddess Manshen, who tells him he has won his last battle, and won’t be able to save the Emperor. She says the Master of the Crimson armor will kill the Emperor. General Guangming is arrogant, and bets he will rescue the Emperor. He’s then attacked by an assassin, Snow Wolf (or Ghost Wolf if you directly translate), who has great strength and speed just like Kunlun. Kunlun comes to his master’s aide, and Snow Wolf realizes Kunlun is from the same land, so he won’t kill him, and runs off. The General is injured, so he sends Kunlun in his place to rescue the Emperor, wearing the Crimsom Armor. Now, the General was just told and even shown by the Goddess that The Master of the Crimson Armor would kill the Emperor, yet he still sends Kunlun off in his armor. I question this general’s skill, he must be relying entirely on luck. General Guangming tells Kunlun that the Emperor will be the only one not carrying a sword.
Inside the Emperor’s Palace, the Emperor is threated by Duke Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), who is a swishy man with a cane with a gold hand with a pointing finger at the end. The Emperor is arrogant as well, but his latest wife is Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung) the girl from earlier in the film, who is what the Duke wants. The Emperor doesn’t care about her, but she goes up to the invading army asking them if they want to see what she’s wearing under her cloak! She shows off her rainbow-colored dress, and the army yells their approval, even getting a gold “thumbs up” from the Duke. She requests they kill the Emperor, who becomes enraged, and tries to kill her, by pulling a sword and swinging at her. He forces her to the edge of the roof, and she falls when Kunlun rides in. He sees the Emperor trying to kill a girl so he throws his sword into his chest (not knowing he’s the Emperor) and catches Princess Qingcheng. The Duke is amazed that the General killed the Emperor. Kunlun rides out of the castle, still with his mask down, and heads to a ravine as the Duke’s men chase him. He’s cornered, but tells the Princess “you must not die, you must live,” and then leaps off the edge to his apparent death. The words he says to the Princess causes her to fall in love with the General, and then weep for his death. The Duke captures the Princess and takes her to his palace, and puts her in a giant bird cage, dressing her in a feathered costume. The Duke is a crazy guy! His palace is a maze-like building on the top of a giant plateau. It’s constructed entirely out of very bad CGI.
Kunlun reports back, and then the General starts scheming. He will rescue the Princess and make her fall in love with him, which will regain him the honor he lost when Kunlun killed the Emperor. Firstly, Kunlun lowers down into the Princess’s cage, hooks her up to some ropes, then takes off running, so she is uplifted into the air, looking like a kite. The rope is severed by a knifethrow from the Duke, and the Princess comes crashing down to Earth. Just then, the General storms in, riding a horse, and he grabs the Princess and heads for the main gate, which is being closed. Kunlun holds the gate open, which takes all of his strength, and the General and the Princess escape.
The General takes the Princess to his estate. Kunlun turns out to be in love with her, but as his Master’s desires come first, he takes a back seat as the General sets to the task of wooing the girl. Eventually, the Princess runs off, tired of the General not being like she imagined. The General kicks Kunlun out in a fit of anger, and Kunlun wanders around a while until Snow Wolf finds him and explains to him his origins. He’s from the Land of Snow, where women glow and men plunder? Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder? Actually, it’s where people run fast and are strong. Run so fast, that they can run back in time! Snow Fox teaches him how to do it, and Kunlun returns to bring his master back to when the Princess left, so he can tell her not to go and that he loves her.
Hey, now they are living together as man and wife (and slave) and will be like farmers. We get a tame sex scene which is very risque for a Mainland Chinese film. Princess is happy for once in her life, until the army comes rumbling into town. The former Crimson Armor troops beg their General to come back and lead them. He’s tempted, and decides to go, despite the Princess’s objections. The whole thing is a big trap by the Duke, who captures the General, and sends men to capture the Princess. Now the only one free is Kunlun, who finds out from Snow Wolf that Snow Wolf was a traitor to his people. Kunlun runs back in time to see his family, and sees the destruction of his people by the Duke, who had conquered them. They are all tied up and flaming arrows shot at them, until one agrees to be his servant. That one is Snow Wolf, who now wears a magic black cloak that gives him powers but will turn him into a wisp of wind if he takes it off. Kunlun tries desperately to save his people, but he cannot penetrate the Wall of Time, in one of the nicer sequences from the film. We get to see Snow Wolf burned by the Duke as a test as well in the flashback.
We’ll just not wonder how normal people conquered a land full of superstrong superfast people.
Kunlun goes to get his Master, and fights to where they are held. We have a courtroom setting where the General is on trial for the murder of the Emperor, but it’s interrupted when Kunlun confesses to the crime, as part of an agreement with the Princess. They pretend that they were lovers before the whole mess started and it was part of their plan. Then the Duke ramps up the evilness, and Snow Wolf realizes that he’s betrayed himself, and takes off his coat after aiding Kunlun. The final fight starts as the General and the Duke fight. The General is badly injured, but manages to free the captured Kunlun, who then fights the Duke as well. They end up finishing each other off, and the Princess has to see the man she loves die, the General, whom she had figured out wasn’t the man in the Crimson Armor that saved her. Then Kunlun is dying as well, and the Princess won’t let him die, putting on the black cloak of Snow Wolf, saving his life. Of course, now hot days are murder due to the thick coat, and you can just forget about the gym. Hey, if you’re wondering if the Goddess ever bothered to show up, nope! I guess she had better things to do, like get hit on by Zeus or Buddha or someone.
Well, that’s greatly simplified, because there are many times where nothing happens and the movie drags on. And on. And ON! My goodness, some parts are slooooooooooooow. I hit Social Security qualifying age waiting for the living on the farm scenes to end. There is little motivation for some of the actions, and the characters are by and large bland, except for The Duke and Snow Fox. The one thing that was the most confusing was why was the Goddess even in the film? She did almost nothing, and after the first half an hour was never seen again. There could have been so many other directions they could have went with her besides “just never mention her again!” Maybe they spent so much money on the effects that they couldn’t afford a second day of shooting for Chen Hong. Odd, since she was a producer on the film. Another major problem is the supposed big revelation that the Duke was the boy in the beginning, and his being hit in the head lead to him never trusting anyone, thus his weirdness and evilness. He already was an arrogant jerk, getting hit in the head should have knocked some sense into him. It’s his own fault he’s a loser, not some quick-thinking girl’s.
The direct translation for the title of The Promise is Unlimited Potential, which is ironic since this film is full of potential that was wasted. And that is what we will remember when we think of The Promise, what could have been. Chen Kaige should promise to go back to making quality films, and leave the overblown epics for the directors who have no substance in the first place.
Rated 3/10 (Roll of destiny, Pointless Goddess, Snotty Child)
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