With a budget of $35 million, Chen Kaige's The Promise is the most expensive film ever made in China, and one can only assume that $35 million goes a lot farther over there than it does over here. But did Chen get his money's worth? The director of Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon, he has a weakness for epic melodramas. But although his films often have historical sweep, he's never worked on this kind of scale before. The Promise, which opens with a battle sequence that feels like an entire war, is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on steroids. Everything's inflated, as if pumped full of hot air.
The Promise is a fairy tale about love and destiny, power and betrayal. When she was a little girl, Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung) struck a deal with a goddess: beauty and power in exchange for love. Years later, she's a kept woman, albeit kept by the emperor, who nevertheless abuses her. Will nobody release Qingcheng from her gilded cage? Enter Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun), a slave posing as his master, a general loyal to the emperor. Sent to protect the emperor, Kunlun assassinates him and runs off with QingÃ?cheng. She falls in love with him, thinking he's the general. He falls in love with her, too. And when the general (Hiroyuki Sanada) finally meets her, he falls in love with her, too.
There's a lot of love in the air, especially given that love's not supposed to be an option. There's also a lot of hate, much of it coming from Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), a smooth-skinned warlord with an interest in martial arts. Wuhuan is one of the more enjoyable aspects of The Promise, a pretty boy with an ugly temper and some rockin' threads. Alas, he's all dressed up with nowhere to go. Chen can't seem to give anything any weight; he's too busy trying to blow us away with computer-enhanced shots that are, quite frankly, a little cheap looking. As a result, the movie has the emotional heft of a "Xena: Warrior Princess" episode. After Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, we're kind of spoiled. We expect these wuxia films to please the eye and engage the mind. Here, only the eye gets any kind of workout, and it's soon fatigued.