Coming closer even than Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers to resembling the Chinese cover art for a vintage Iron Butterfly album, Chen Kaige’s The Promise is psychedelia extremis. Hardly a minute passes without a concentrated dose of digital froufrou and lavish cartoon- poetic imagery: floating ocean goddesses, flying swordsmen, Final Fantasy waterscapes, horse manes dyed fuck-me red. One can only imagine what impact some 1971-grade LSD might have on a courageous viewer. The assault of chintz is relentless—in support of a half-baked honor-love-mistaken-identity yarn—but it’s also wildly campy. The cursed heroine (Cecilia Cheung) is kept prisoner in a giant birdcage that seems designed for Siegfried & Roy; eye shadow, feather boas, and scarlet capes are de rigueur for the men. More ejaculatory effort has been expended on the knights’ Vegas-style ensembles than on a coherent narrative, and the upshot is a new-millennium wuxia pian that risks all its marbles on nonsensical style and none on storytelling.
Which is the genre’s bread and butter. Like the western, the Chinese martial arts movie is a frontier playground for moral crisis; the fighting and supernatural high times were methods of escalating dramatic torque. This was well understood in the HK salad days of the ’70s and ’80s, when speed and nerve were the only tools available to make these crazy contraptions fly. But the yuan talks, and video game spectacle is the most reliable of international McMovies. Chen’s story is harebrained but hardly simple, conflating the fates of Cheung’s princess, a likable windbag of a general (Hiroyuki Sanada), and his devoted slave (Jang Dong-gun), who can run like the Flash and, without the training usually thought necessary for this sort of thing, defy time and space as well as any master monk. Who loves who and why is never made clear, and the mano a mano is managed via quick edits, not the actor’s movements.
There are lovely moments—the slave rescuing the feather-robed princess on a tether and flying her like a kite—but they’re gumdrops in a vat of cheap candy. You can’t help wondering how the same Fifth Gen filmmaker who made Yellow Earth and Life on a String could’ve fallen on such hard times, or justified such goofiness to himself.