COURTESY WARNER INDEPENDENT PICTURES
A young Qingcheng (Guan Xiaotong) accepts a life of failed love in exchange for riches and power bestowed by the goddess Manshen (Chen Hong).
Choppy editing mars epic Chinese fantasy
Patience is a virtue and you, the virtuous viewer, will need a bit of it to see your way through Chen Kaige's ambitious, big-budget epic fantasy.
Opens: Friday at Consolidated Varsity and Ward
But by film's end, "The Promise" pays off. You just have to sit through action sequences that range from balletic to the near-ludicrous, to get to the meat of the main characters' complicated relationships.
The noted Chinese film director admitted in a recent interview that he was in over his head at times during post-production. After six months shooting in various soundstages and locations around mainland China in 2004, Chen moved to Hong Kong to oversee close to 1,000 effects shots that took more than a year to complete.
The movie obviously hit a nerve with mainland Chinese audiences. "The Promise" -- or, in its original title, "Wu jin" -- was the top-grossing movie in China last year. A slightly shorter version (with prologue) opens in select U.S. cities, including Honolulu, this weekend.
For Western audiences used to Chen's smaller and celebrated character-driven dramas of past years, "The Promise" will be puzzling, even off-putting, at first -- what with its multitude of CGI effects and elaborately choreographed fight scenes that are de rigueur for the fantasy genre.
But, as I said, be patient.
Although it hopes to duplicate the successes of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," "The Promise" lacks the emotional depth of those movies. But it makes up for that in immediate impact in the technical departments. Kudos go in particular to cinematographer Peter Pau (who also shot "Crouching Tiger ...") and production designer and co-costume designer Tim Yip for helping make such a lush film.
The message of the movie? Lives fated for disappointment and sorrow can be changed through wise choices. That's what the sage goddess of fortune Manshen (Chen Hong) bestows on an assortment of characters thrown together through a dance of passion and desire.
Three men -- the lowly slave Kunlun (Korean star Jang Dong-kun), his proud general master Guangming (Japanese star Hiroyuki Sanada) and the coldly ruthless king Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse) all vie for the love of the beautiful if imperious princess, Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung).
The core story is surrounded by action set pieces that sometimes threaten to distract. A prime example is the first battle scene in Horseshoe Valley, where Kunlun shows his talent in running at super speed as he leads a cattle stampede through enemy lines.
After that, one gets used to Chen's alternating flow between action spectacle and human drama. The transitions may not be the smoothest, sacrificed, no doubt, for this abbreviated version.
While all the actors are playing archetypes, two in particular rise above their roles. Tse brings a particularly malicious glee to Wuhuan and, as Wuhuan's assassin Snow Wolf, Liu Ye fleshes out a doleful and ultimately tragic figure.
It takes the movie's climactic final scene, as Wuhuan and the general fight to the death, to finally bring the story's many elements together for a satisfying close.
Still, I'd like to know what story elements were sacrificed in those deleted 20 minutes. Oh well, there's always the DVD version.