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Kaige CHEN is a master of Chinese cinema. With films such as the epic masterpiece Farewell, My Concubine (1993), the emotional and intimate Together (2002) or the lush period piece Emperor And The Assassin, The (1999), he surely got himself a place in the pantheon of great directors emerging in the 90's, along side others such as Yimou ZHANG.
In the past several years, many Chinese directors have tried their hands at grand martial-arts action epics and tried to break into the world market beyond the cult following those films already enjoyed. The first such movie was Ang LEE's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). It was a thoroughly Chinese tale of love, honor and adventure with great martial arts which exploded as an international success, an Oscar win for best Foreign Film, and so on. Then 2 years later, Yimou ZHANG also broke unto the international scene with the fantastic Hero (2002). It was Chinese visual and kinetic poetry to the nines, which he followed with House Of Flying Daggers (2004) another 2 years later. With all those successful Chinese films, other great Chinese directors were bound to follow, and this year, you have Kaige CHEN's Promise, The (2005). So how is it? Does it measure up?
The film opens with a young girl walking around in a forest that looks like a furious battle had raged there only a day before or so. The landscape is littered with bodies and she walks around, in the hope of finding something that she can use: clothing, jewelry she could sell, food, whatever she could find to survive. Then a goddess appears before her and offers her a deal: "your life will be exceptional and you will never go hungry again, but in exchange, you will never love, or when you do, it's when you'll lose everything". The little girl agrees to this most Faustian of deals. Many years later, we see her as Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung), the Emperor's top concubine. She can make any man weep at the drop of a hat, or in her case, a scarf, a sleeve, anything that will uncover a part of her body to be only furtively seen. But things are not so easy as three men quickly fall in love with her. The first is Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) one of the Emperor's top generals. The second is Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), one of the Emperor's top adversary. The third is Kunlun (Dong-Kun Jang), the General's slave. Everything starts when Kunlun has to don the General's armor and meet with the Emperor (the general was wounded in battle but could not refuse the Emperor's invitation so he got his slave to do the job for him). In a case of mistaken identity, Kunlun kills the Emperor in an effort to defend the Princess. Of course, everybody thinks it's actually the General who did it, and Wuhuan is quick to take political advantage of the situation to take over the throne, and the Princess.
For the first few minutes of the film, my heart was pounding. I don't think i remember seeing such beautiful imageries in quite a long time. It blows anything i had seen. The color palette was delicate, yet strong. The details were very well done (water, wind, cloud...). It looked like one of those gorgeous Chinese water paintings, only in live action. I was literally jumping up and down on my seat at the excitement of what the next 2 hours of this film would have in store for me. However, the excitement quickly died down.
The writing is completely off. The story becomes absurd quite quickly and is very hard to follow. It feels on and on like the characters change personalities as often as they change their wardrobes. There are also lots of characters, and the film tries too hard to give each of them a chance at having their stories properly exposed. All it does is add to the confusion and distract viewers instead of focusing them on the main storyline. It could have been such a cool love and political epic, and it turns out to be really not good.
Visually, the film is also very uneven. Some of the shots are so gorgeous i dare you to keep your mouth open. My jaw was repeatedly on the floor throughout the film. Yet, at the same time, the movie often gets too CG-happy (Computer Graphics), and the CG effects are not good most of the time... really mediocre. The same goes for the sets and costumes which at times look fantastic, yet at other times, look cheap. The DVD Special Edition straight from Hong Kong i got had a wonderful booklet with illustrations of costumes (some of the pictures are shown above) and it's sad to really see when the team succeeded beautifully, and when it failed miserably. Some costumes look grandiose on paper, but in the film, felt cheap. This is China's most expensive film so far (about $35M) and one can't help but wonder where the money went, especially in light of many previous much cheaper movies with generally impecable cinematography and art direction.
Acting wise, it's a mixed bag too. Although i applaud the fact that the cast was pan-Asian, and with first-rate actors, there is a feel throughout that they are simply not engaged and miscast. Korean Dong-Kun Jang did a good job with his role. So did Japanese Hiroyuki Sanada. Maybe it's me, but his Japanese facial features are so strong to me that i had a hard time thinking of him as a Chinese general. He was good, don't get me wrong, but there was something off. His gestures, postures, eyes more often reminded me of a Japanese Samurai than a Chinese General. It's like the impression i had with Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005) where i had a hard time seeing Ziyi Zhang (whom i consider to be a pinnacle of Chinese beauty) as a Japanese Geisha. As for Nicholas Tse, let's say that he is a very cute guy and has a good presence generally, but he's not what i would call a great actor. His pretty-boy looks really work against establishing a more threatening villain. Finally, Cecilia Cheung is more beautiful than she has ever been, and tries to hold her role as much as she can, but there only so much she can do.
When this film comes out in the US (it was China's entry for the Oscars' Best Foreign Film but wasn't selected, and it has only recently started to make the international festival circuit), comparisons will be made with the films i have mentioned above as this one tries to do the same thing: woo western audiences with Chinese magic. But there are too many issues to make this a success. It also doesn't play well enough to the Martial Arts crowd and will disappoint in that regard. Overall, this film was a huge disappointment for me, and a manic-depressive-like experience. At some points, i was so ecstatic as the beauty this film displayed and then 5 minutes later, i was feeling down, thinking: "What the f*** are they doing?". The film is mostly a 5, with several peaks at 10, and a few bottoms at 1. I do not regret seeing it though. The original cut of this film is over 2h, and a significantly cut version is coming to the US. Given all the criticism i gave to this film, one could think that some serious editing could make the film better. It didn't. The 26mn cut only add to the confusion of the story by eliminating scenes that although not great do add to the overall motivations of the characters. The full length version left me confused, but the cut version left me bewildered. So, if you want to see this (which you should if you like Chinese cinema and care to see the great as well as the failed epics), make sure you get the full version.
- Laurent Hasson