May 11, 2006

Movie Review: The Promise (Wu ji)

Frustrating. In a word, that is what this movie was. I so very much wanted to like it, the trailer looked so good. It is such a shame that the end result was so muddled. I remember seeing the trailer a month or so back and marveling at the images that were put up on the screen. It seemed to promise an experience similar to Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but told in a more pure fantasy realm.

I am not sure that I could adequately explain just what happened in The Promise, I'm not sure I understand exactly what happened. Good guys are bad buys, bad guys are good guys, love isn't love, people are not who they seem to be, it is just too much. On top of that, the effects are awful, and for a film that is reportedly the most expensive Chinese film ever made, that is not something to be proud of.

The convoluted plot involves a general who uses slaves as a diversion in a battle that sees them as a massive underdog. Apparently, it is heroic to lead slaves to the slaughter in order to gain the upperhand in what may or may not be a winning battle. This running of the slaves leads to the introcuction of an overly loyal, and not terribly bright. This all follows an opening featuring a young girl who is given a choice by a goddess. The choice will set about most of what happens for the rest of the film, yet remains sadly underutilized as a story device.

That offer and acceptance of the goddesses offer could have made a wonderful film all its own. Sadly, it is used as a mere plot device in this movie. It involves a young girl being offered the chance to live life as the most beautiful woman in the world, and always everything that her heart desires, save love. She will never be able to find happiness with a man, all her relationships will contain fleeting happiness. To me, this would make a great basis for a fairy tale fantasy. That is what I had thought this was going to be about.

Instead of that as the film, there are other threads involving a cloak of eternal life, running faster than time, mistaken identity, misdirected hate/love, all culminating in a climax which contains no emotional resonance.

I stated earlier that this was frustrating. I stand by that. It did not live up to my expectations at all, but it was not a complete loss. The effects may have been laughably bad at times, seriously, they are not convincing on any level, even with the ability to suspend disbelief it is hard to ignore how bad it was. They were rather distracting.

Got sidetracked there for a bit. Director Chen Kaige did create an intiguing fantasy realm for the characters to inhabit. For as bad as the effects were, there were many shots that were stunning to see on the big screen. Falling flower petals, a battle around a tree, the lead actress in a feather suit and imprisoned in a golden birdcage, some beautiful scenery. It truly did not seem like anywhere on earth. Also, Cecelia Cheung, as Qingcheng, is absolutely stunning, she has phenomenal grace and presence on the screen. It is a shame she did not have more screentime.

Bottomline. Not a complete loss, but a huge letdown from what I had been hoping for. The Promise has some wonderful visuals, and some nice elements that would have been better in another film. It is worth seeing on the big screen, so long as you have tempered your expectations.

Very Mildly Recommended.
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