The Promise Review

Perhaps the most extravagant and visually spectacular CGI Asian martial arts epic yet, Chen Kaige – the director of ‘The Emperor and the Assassin’ and ‘Farewell My Concubine’ – takes an abrupt change of direction with this magical fantasy action blockbuster. Noel Megahey reviews the Hong Kong 2-disc Limited Edition.

The Promise is a truly breathtaking and astonishingly imaginative fantasy, brought to the screen with the true flair of Asian martial arts cinema that viewers in the west will already be familiar with from such epics as Hero, House Of Flying Daggers, and Seven Swords. There is however one notable factor about The Promise, and that is it is made by one of Chinese Cinema’s most illustrious filmmakers, Chen Kaige (The Emperor And The Assassin, Farewell My Concubine). The director’s fellow Fifth Generation rival and one time assistant Zhang Yimou has already left the arthouse to make several films in this style, with varied success, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous – but with Chen Kaige’s only previous attempt at a commercialism being the all-round disaster that was Killing Me Softly, the prospects and advance word about The Promise didn’t inspire much optimism as to its success.

The Promise is set in an ancient fantasy kingdom where gods and men co-exist, General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada), the Master of the Crimson Armour, sacrifices 133 slaves in order to defeat 20,000 barbarians that are bearing down with hordes of bulls on his 3,000 troops, trapped in Horseshoe Valley. The only surviving slave is Kunlun (Jang Dong-kun), who, as a former inhabitant of the now vanished Land of Snow, demonstrates incredible speed and agility. Impressed by his abilities, the General takes Kunlun to be his own personal slave.

When he is seriously injured by Snow Wolf (Liu Ye) – a dark mysterious assassin working on the orders of Wuhuan, the Duke of the North (Nicholas Tse) – General Guangming is forced to rely on Kunlun to don his armour and ride to the rescue of the King, who is under attack from Wuhuan’s forces. However, when Kunlun arrives and witnesses the predicament of the beautiful Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung), he finds himself unwittingly fulfilling a terrible prophesy. For behind the scenes, directing the course of their destinies is the Goddess Manshen (Chen Hong), who has held Qingcheng to a promise she has made as a child – and in return for all the riches in the world, every man she falls in love with, she is destined to lose.

The Promise follows in the footsteps of the growing trend for CGI martial arts epics, but, as the above synopsis might suggest, it takes everything just that little bit further, with every single scene of the film looking like something out of some incredible surreal dream, bearing only the most tenuous of connections to any known reality. Evidently, the film makes extensive use of computer effects. If you are going to make a fantasy film and, unlike Tsui Hark in Seven Swords, are not shy about using CGI, you might as well go the whole hog – and from the first images on the screen through to the last, The Promise shows not the slightest degree of subtlety or restraint. It’s extravagant in every respect, from the baroque detail of costumes made of flowers, leaves and feathers to the grand gestures and movements, the grandiloquent words and pronouncements of prophesies and destinies that characterise the key players in this tale, to the magnificent backdrops of vast palaces of concentric circles perched on the top of vertiginous mountain tops where our characters swoop down, defying every law of physics to rescue damsels in distress, held in vast gilded cages. This is mythic material on the scale of The Arabian Nights.

But just what on earth has any of this to do with Chen Kaige? It’s very hard to say. The closest Chen has come to anything like this was in his epic The Emperor And The Assassin, where he handled a film on a similar scale without the aid of CGI – but that had far more dramatic aspirations with a power play that was practically Shakespearean in its scope. The Promise clearly has no other purpose than to entertain, and to a large degree, the director shows himself to be quite capable on that score, the film flowing beautifully from one amazing scene to the next with fluidity not only in the magnificent camera work by Peter Pau, but also in its narrative, characterisation and performance, which are Chen Kaige’s undoubted strengths.

Unfortunately, the setting – stunning feast for the eyes though it most certainly is – proves to be the undoing of those strengths, since any human element or emotion that is not raised to the same heights is likely to be lost in such as a grand, epic fantasy. To compensate, it is inevitable that if human emotions are to be the driving force behind the narrative – and with Chen Kaige an arthouse rather than an action director, that is not unexpected – they need to be raised to a corresponding level. The Promise consequently, tends to fall into the same trap as House Of Flying Daggers, by making a love story the main element of an elaborate and fantastical plot and correspondingly exaggerating it to obscene proportions of sentiment. The ending, though similar in its denouement, is perhaps not quite as ludicrous in this respect as House Of Flying Daggers, but it’s not too far behind either. It’s a disappointment, because if the film had remained faithful to the stunningly over-the-top and otherworldly qualities of the opening Battle of Horseshoe Valley, without feeling the need to anchor them to a conventional love-triangle/revenge melodrama, The Promise might have lived up to its …er, promise.

The Promise is released on DVD in Hong Kong by Deltamac in a 2-disc Limited Edition. The DVD is superbly packaged, slipcased, containing the 2-discs in trays in a book format. The Limited Edition also comes with four prints and a beautiful booklet of the character and costume designs by the manga artist Kimiya Masago. Initial orders from YesAsia, using the link below, also include a set of postcards of the character poster designs. The DVD is in NTSC format and is not region encoded.

The picture quality is excellent on this edition. At least the film itself is colourful and spectacular and the print quality used for this is superb and without flaws. However, the transfer itself – while certainly not taking away greatly from the quality of the visuals – is, like most Hong Kong transfers, not quite up to the demands placed on it. The image is certainly colourful, the tones strong and stable, if perhaps a little over-saturated and lacking in finer detail – reds particularly tending to bloom. In a film however, where every frame is pushed and exaggerated to the extreme, this is not necessarily a disadvantage and may even be close to its intended look. The limitations of the transfer show in darker scenes and in shadows, where black tones tend to flatten out and look a little murky. This is a minor issue however and unlikely to trouble anyone as much as the movement artefacts that cause some slight blurring in a film that is characterised by fast, flowing action scenes. Again, some blurring is stylised, but perhaps not to the extent that can be seen here in the simplest of camera pans. The transfer is also blighted by particularly heavy edge-enhancement ringing and dot crawl can be seen in certain scenes. The transfer however, presented anamorphically at 2.35:1, is reasonably good overall and often impressive, perhaps simply on account of the sheer extravagance of the visuals.

There is an excellent choice of high quality sound mixes – the original Mandarin soundtrack presented in Dolby Digital 6.1EX or DTS 6.1ES, with an additional Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 EX dub for Hong Kong viewers – but none of the mixes, even the DTS mix, performs quite as spectacularly as you might expect them to. All the mixes sound pretty good however, with a lot of power in the action sequences, making extensive but appropriate use of the surrounds and subwoofer. Dialogue is clear and well placed in the mix, as is the music score which has good tone and warmth and doesn’t swamp the scenes.

English subtitles are included and are optional in a white font. There are only one or two very minor spelling issues, but for the majority of the film, they are excellent and consistent. All the extra features on Disc 2 are subtitled in English.

Trailers and TC Commercials
Obviously the Promise looks spectacular in its trailers, presented here non-anamorphically as Trailer A (2:37) Trailer B (2:31), the second without dialogue only to a musical accompaniment. Four very short TV Commercials (0.31, 016, 0.16 and 0.6) are also included.

Behind The Scenes (10:00)
Made up of cut down versions of the longer interview found elsewhere on the disc, this is just a standard EPK featurette of interviews and on-set footage.

10 Unforgettable Scenes
While certainly living up to their billing, this is nonetheless a rather pointless feature, presenting 10 scenes from the film, some of them slightly re-edited in a cut-down format for impact. This includes An Enchantress (1:22), Race With The Bulls (1.52), The Abyss (2:00), The Narrow Escape (2:27), Under The Cherry Blossom (0:44), A Long Haul (3:08), The Feather (0:49), Back To The Massacre (1:13), Wolf Into Ashes (2:18) and Breaking The Spell (5:50).

Star Interviews
Certainly the most useful, and perhaps only substantial extra feature included in the set, the extensive interviews with all the main cast and crew, containing extensive backstage footage, give a good indication of Chen’s direction, how the film was shot and of the atmosphere on the set. Korean actor Jang Dong-Kun (9:52) talks about his character, working with Chen, and how he overcame his inexperience and language issues working on the film. The same language barrier was faced by the Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada (13:20), and his interview focuses on that aspect, while there is further input from the costume and production designers on the elaborate costume worn by the General. Cecilia Cheung (10:44) talks about shooting and filming key scenes in the film, in her inimitable fashion. The interview with Nicholas Tse (9:34) focuses on his taking part in the action sequences as an essential part of being the character. Liu Ye (9:27) adopted a similar approach, but found it rather demanding and suffered a number of injuries. Chen Hong (13:51) talks about her role as both actress (the Goddess Manchen) and as the Producer of the film. Peter Pau (9:22) talks about his contribution as cinematographer and the use of more technology than he has ever used before on a film. Chen Kaige (11:08) expresses his belief in the film and his ability to convey through the actors, their characters and their environment, the essential themes of the film.

Photo Gallery
A range of photos are divided into four slideshow sections. Theatrical and Character Posters (1:23), Lobby Stills (4:34), Stills Selections (17:21) and Sketches on Production Sets (8:34). As some of these are quite long, you have a good opportunity to listen to extensive soundtrack excerpts. The galleries themselves are fine and in widescreen, but unfortunately framed, reducing their impact considerably. They would have looked much better in full-screen.

There is no denying the ambition of a director like Chen Kaige undertaking the challenge of making a big-budget action movie so different from anything else he has done before. There is also no denying either the sheer grandeur of The Promise’s visual splendour, the skill of the director in pulling it all together with seemingly effortless ease, or the terrific performances of an exceptional Asian cast drawing actors from China, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan. Despite the imaginative fantastical settings and elaborate production design however, the emotional heart of the story is very simple – the standard storytelling material of conflicts of love, anger, betrayal and trust – expressed in grand, epic terms. When reduced to those terms however, the story loses a lot of the surreality that makes it so special. Nevertheless, The Promise remains an incredible spectacle and I make no apologies for the surfeit of superlatives scattered throughout this review, because if ever a film could live up to them and deliver an experience like no other – this is it.


Updated: Mar 19, 2006

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