On the strength of an 11-minute trailer that earned a standing ovation at Cannes, as well as the chaotic story of its distribution here -- rights were snatched up by The Weinstein Company, only to be dropped after a re-edit and re-naming; Warner Independent Pictures ended up with the film -- Chen Kaige's The Promise had developed considerable buzz in the US. Set to open here early next month, it’s now one of the handful of jarringly commercial, big-budget films showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. Unfortunately, however, the movie fails to live up to either its buzz or the visual potential hinted at in that Cannes trailer.
The Promise is set in a fantastic land, in which gods and men live side-by-side, and giant, color-coded armies battle for dominance. The film is dominated by set-piece combat scenes, none of which adhere to normal rules of physics; each features reams and reams of billowing fabric, movements of impossible grace, and long chases across whatever lovely obstacles present themselves, from trees and rooftops to human-sized birdcages and craggy landscapes. The plot, as you might expect, is of little consequence, serving primarily as an excuse for those battles and other CGI-enhanced scenes of dramatic beauty. Such as it is, however, the plot revolves are Quingcheng (Cecilia Cheung), a woman who, as a young girl, made an unfortunate promise to a goddess, accepting endless devotion and wealth in exchange for the inability to find and keep a true love. Inevitably, she falls in love with a man who kills for her, but because of circumstances and the man’s hidden face, she believes her rescuer to be the fabled Master of the Crimson Armor (Hiroyuki Sanada), when in fact it is his slave (Jang Dong-Kun). Needless to say, great dramatic sacrifices are made, loves are lost, and lives are changed, all in gorgeous ways.
The overly dramatic nature of the film, from the story to its elaborate, outrageous costumes, lends it an unavoidably campy air. The problem, however, is that, with only one exception, no one on screen seems aware of how their movie actually looks. Instead of giving into the over-the-top nature of their roles, the actors instead tend to approach them with an intense seriousness that renders many of the most romantic and dramatic scenes comical rather than powerful. The one except to this rule is Nicholas Tse, who plays Wuhan, the film’s ultimate bad guy. Tse is both an actor a pop star, and has been a heart-throb in much of Asia since his teenage years. Perhaps because he is accustomed to being adored purely for his physical beauty rather than the strength of his acting and singing, he throws himself into the film’s campiness with complete understanding. He plays up Chen’s emphasis on appearances with unrestrained glee: posing even in the midst of battle, prancing proudly in his outrageous, feathered garb, and acting out his disgust with all the oversized verve the film demands. Particularly in the second half of the movie, Tse is so wonderful that he almost manages to improve the quality of The Promise by sheer force of campy will, dragging the rest of the cast along with him up to the level of absurdity at which the film requires them to operate.
Campy and outrageous as it is, The Promise is nothing if not lightweight -- much less, certainly, than its hyper-serious soundtrack, press, and trailer would suggest, but enjoyable nonetheless. Even those who are turned off by the less-than-stellar effects and the absurdity of its story will be hard-pressed to resist Tse, who seems, happily, to have ably grasped the silliness not only of the film at hand, but also of his own, surface-based status and reputation. On the basis of his performance alone, The Promise is worth seeing.