Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Hiroyuki Sanada, Jang Dong-Gun, Cecilia Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Cheng Qian, Liu Ye, Chen Hong
Written by: Chen Kaige
Directed by: Chen Kaige
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for stylized violence and martial arts action, and some sexual content
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 102
Date: 12/15/2005
IMDB

The Promise (2006)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Kick Start

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

These days the so-called "Sixth Generation" of Chinese filmmakers has made quite an impressive mark through films like Jia Zhang-ke's Unknown Pleasures (2003) and The World (2005), Lou Ye's Suzhou River (2000) and Purple Butterfly (2003) and Zhang Yang's Shower (1999) and Quitting (2002).

But what's the score on the older, "Fifth Generation"? Zhang Yimou has moved from his colorful Gong Li dramas like Raise the Red Lantern (1992) to a series of gritty, realistic films like Not One Less (1999) to a couple of dressy kung-fu epics, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, (both 2004). Yet he always seems to know where he's going.

By far the greatest filmmaker of the Fifth Generation, Tian Zhuangzhuang of the masterful The Horse Thief (1986) and The Blue Kite (1994), only works sporadically, dealing with constant distribution troubles. His last film, the wonderful Springtime in a Small Town (2002), never even opened in the Bay Area.

That leaves Chen Kaige. At one point, Chen was a promising filmmaker in his own right, but now, with his newest film The Promise, it appears as if he has been riding the coattails of his colleagues all along, and that the ride is just now petering out.

Like Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee, with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), before him, Chen has now made what amounts to a kung-fu movie with long pants, stripping the genre of its comic book, "B" movie zing, slowing it down, and making it seem more "artistic."

Moreover, Chen employs the same clumsy CGI effects used so wonderfully in Stephen Chow's comedies Shaolin Soccer (2002) and Kung Fu Hustle (2005). In a drama, these cartoony effects jar us out of the action, and make The Promise inadvertently funny.

Fortunately, not even Chen can douse the fun of this creaky old story, which involves a magical curse, a case of mistaken identity, good guys, bad guys, kings, generals, and of course, a beautiful girl.

The film starts in a flashback. A young girl, narrowly escaping the smoking ruins of a devastating battle, makes an agreement with a goddess. In exchange for a life of riches, power and safety, every man she loves will befall some terrible misfortune.

Twenty years later, General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) readies his outnumbered troops against a band of rampaging barbarians. The general sends a group of slaves out front to test the waters. One slave, Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun), it turns out, has some kind of superhuman kung-fu training that allows him to survive the battle.

The general adopts him as his own, personal servant, and Kunlun agrees, because he'll actually get to eat every day.

Returning home though a dark woods, Kunlun protects the General from a powerful, cloaked assassin (Liu Ye). The wounded General orders Kunlun to don his armor, ride home and protect their king.

But when Kunlun arrives, the King (Cheng Qian) is just about to attack the beautiful Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung). Kunlun mistakes the king for a bad guy and kills him. Not only does the General get blamed for the crime, but also Qingcheng pledges her love to the wrong man.

And so it goes. According to various sources, the American release, which runs 102 minutes, is missing anywhere from 19 to 26 minutes from its Chinese release. This may explain the sporadic nature of the storytelling, which ranges from snappy and clean, to sluggish and murky.

Chen probably needs a lengthy film to come across as more awe-inspiring. His first breakthrough film in the U.S. was Farewell My Concubine (1993), whose nearly three-hour running time impressed almost everyone who saw it.

The director fared less well with his shorter Temptress Moon (1996), and so he went long again for another three-hour epic, The Emperor and the Assassin (2000). From there, he tried an English-language debut, Killing Me Softly (2002), which went straight-to-video, and the aggravatingly precious, art house-friendly Together (2003).

Presumably stuck for his next step, he looked to his colleagues for inspiration, and came up with The Promise. Oddly, it's the most expensive film produced in China to date; he must have convinced people that he knew what he was doing.

When Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out, it created a sensation here in the U.S., but Chinese audiences were not fooled. They knew it was an inflated, slower, duller version of the genre they had come to know and love. Zhang Yimou's Hero corrected this by casting martial arts sensation Jet Li as its centerpiece, giving his film a bit of speed and coiled energy.

The Promise falls somewhere in-between. It's not exactly high art, nor is it zippy fun, but it definitely has something, a lack of pretentiousness perhaps? Maybe it's the sense of Chen giving up and throwing caution to the wind for the very first time.