But a kernel of truth is buried in The Promise’s pile of CGI
Wu ji (The Promise), according to cardinal film-natter supersite IMDb.com, checks in with a pricetag of around $35 million, making it the most expensive picture in Chinese history. Having recently taken in all 100-plus minutes of the U.S. cut, then, I should be able to tell you whether the result seems worth such an investment — or at least worth the eight bucks they’ll charge you at the Bijou.
|Hiroyuki Sanada portrays General Guangming in The Promise, a monster epic marred by too many special effects and corny acting.
Ah, but it’s a tricky one, this.
Had you pulled me from my seat at any point during, say, the first hour, I’d have swiftly told you, “No,” my face yet a coiled knot of residual, Wu-ji-inspired perplexity. Forty or so minutes later, though? Not so sure.
On a silent, corpse-garnished battlefield, a starving young girl named Qingcheng makes a deal with a goddess: She will grow to have power over men, and never again know poverty or hunger, but will neither know true love until time flows backwards, snow falls in spring, and the dead rise again. (Sounds like something that might come into play later in the story, you say? Good eye, soldier. Hold that thought.)
Briefly: Kunlun (Jang), a slave with seemingly inexplicable speed, is chosen to serve the celebrated General Guangming (Sanada), sworn enemy to the villainous Wuhuan (Tse). An encounter with a mysterious assassin leads Kunlun to believe he may be from the Land of Snow, a legendary place that produces such preternaturally speedy people, but was destroyed long ago by Wuhuan. All three men, then, are connected through rivalry, which condition is exacerbated by their profound individual connections to Qingcheng (Cheung), who has grown into the princess Manshen promised.
Dir. & writ. Kaige Chen; feat. Dong-Kun Jang, Cecilia Cheung, Hiroyuki Sanada, Nicholas Tse, Ye Liu (PG-13)
The first few minutes of The Promise serve as prologue for what becomes the defining visual device for the film: CGI-heavy crap-that-could-never-happen. The digital business is laid on sufficiently thickly to move from notable to gimmicky to disengaging within a matter of minutes. An early “epic-battle” scene is particularly troublesome: Unconvincing effects, gonzo camera-work, and too-close shots of costumes combine to create an oddish sort of Playstation-2-meets-college-musical vibe that ... well, how does that sound to you? Doubtless, some critics will hail The Promise as “dreamlike” and “lushly imagined” — and it is both, in points. But too often it also comes off as cartoonish and silly. Couple this with the fact that you’re lobbed a new plot point every five minutes or so, and much of the film’s exposition-and-set-up time is hard to swallow.
Eventually, though, if you’ve paid attention, the effort begins somewhat suddenly to pay off: The crazy stuff eases up and the film, incredibly, turns into a relatively simple study of integrity and sacrifice, wire stunts and hoo-ha be buggered. And that’s enough to save it — almost. There’s a good message here, but it’s buried beneath such a cumbersome casserole of cloying, goofball spectacle that only the patient or determined will reap the benefits. So — worth it? It depends. Can you weather often-clownish acting and production for a kernel of redeeming truth? If you’d rather not spend the time, I sympathize. But for the curious, it offers a striking level of both good and bad storytelling not often witnessed within the same piece. And the good is in there. Cross my heart.