Epic film delivers on The Promise of stunning visuals, despite shaky CGI start

By Brian White

I’m just going to start out by saying this: The beginning of The Promise is painful to watch. The Promise is a gorgeous movie, with some of the most impressive visuals I have seen since Hero. Young Qingcheng’s (Cecilia Cheung) meeting with the goddess Manshen (Hong Chen) at the very beginning of the movie flows beautifully. The scene sets a tone of fluid grace, mixed with exciting promises of future adventure.

Or so I had hoped. Instead, the audience is treated to a battle scene rife with misplaced, sub-par CGI effects, intermingled with warriors wielding comically oversized weapons that are clearly made of either plastic or Styrofoam. It’s accompanied by a ridiculous, if amusing, scene where General Guanming (played with a Japanese flair by actor Hiroyuki Sanada) fights off the great bulk of the enemy army with what looks like two beach balls attached by a piece of twine.

As if this weren’t enough, writer and director Chen Kaige then treats the audience to a hilariously cartoonish sequence in which a slave carries his master through the enemy ranks (more reminiscent of the Road Runner than ancient China). It’s a bad sign when the audience is trying to hold back giggles in the first 15 minutes of your movie—which is supposed to be a drama, but appears almost intentionally comedic.

But while the first few scenes of the movie are ridiculous, silly, and sloppy, The Promise more than makes up for this with the rest of the film.

What follows the embarrassing battle sequence is, surprisingly, a powerfully epic tale. It tells the story of a deadly and tragic circle of love, honor, and revenge that ensnares a ferocious general, a heartless duke, a fast-footed slave, a deadly assassin, and a beautiful princess cursed to lose every man she would ever love. The movie’s scope gradually narrows from the wide battlefield to more enclosed and intimate confines. Its true visual splendor emerges in shots that focus more on the characters’ individual emotions, framed by beautiful and majestic surroundings.

Although none of the individual performances are especially outstanding, each actor provides a solid contribution to the movie. Sanada is particularly interesting in his portrayal of the arrogant but lovable General Guanming. What’s impressive about the characters in this movie is their individuality. In a romantic epic like this, it would be remarkably easy to submit to good-guy/bad-guy stereotypes and conclude with an ending that’s satisfying but unambiguous.

But with the exception of the Duke Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), whose motivations and back story border on absurd and unbelievably childish, each character possesses his own complexity and emotional resonance. The story—which centers mostly on the slave Kunlun (Dong-Gun Jang)—gets a bit convoluted, balancing what are essentially five main characters, but manages to tie them all together relatively well.

Ever since 2000, any Chinese martial-arts movie draws inevitable comparisons to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I feel the need to state firmly that this movie is not Crouching Tiger and was not meant to be Crouching Tiger. A more appropriate comparison for The Promise is 2002’s Hero. Both have powerful and emotionally affecting characters, but their focus is not primarily on individual character power. They concentrate on visually stunning images that augment (but do not replace) each character’s situation, and enhance the emotional impact of the movie overall.

Crouching Tiger is more of a poem, while Hero and The Promise are more like paintings. Saying that The Promise lacks the character development or intimacy of Crouching Tiger is like saying that Lord of the Rings lacks the intimacy of A Beautiful Mind. It is important to recognize that this is a different kind of movie and not go into it expecting a similar experience.

That said, I’m going to go ahead and compare this movie—objectively—to Crouching Tiger anyway. The Promise is a solid movie and well worth the nine bucks and change I paid to see it, but it is no Crouching Tiger, and even finishes below the recent Hero. It’s just too difficult to overcome the movie’s initial silliness, so the latter half, while good, falls unfortunately flat. Especially since this is supposedly the most expensive film in Chinese history, The Promise’s bland CGI falls inexcusably short compared to Hero’s visuals and beautiful cinematography. But The Promise soars high above last year’s lackluster House of Flying Daggers, so for those of you hoping for a return to the Chinese cinematic greatness of Crouching Tiger, this is certainly not the end of any revival, and it might actually be the beginning of one.

Many of you might have seen The Promise at this year’s Golden Globes, where it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. It didn’t win (and it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar). The Promise is not Oscar- or Globe-worthy material, but it certainly is a good time. I would recommend it well above anything else in the theatre right now. You could always watch a crazy Scientologist prove once again that the mission is, in fact, not impossible (while Phillip Seymour Hoffman ruins his career), or you could go see The Promise, a splendid—if slightly cartoony—epic. Skip the Scientologist; you’ll have a good time.

I promise.