The Promise (2005)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-05-11
We had a rare treat over the weekend, catching “The Promise” at a movie theater. Other than mega-blockbusters (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) East Asian films are rarely screened in the Detroit area. There is plenty of Arab cinema here—Detroit and its suburbs are home to a large and culturally vigorous Arab-American community—and at least one movie theater that programs Indian films exclusively, but with a small East Asian population there doesn’t seem to be enough demand to support regular showings of films from China, Korea, Southeast Asia or even Japan.

Generally they are programmed to coincide with a DVD release—“Infernal Affairs” played for a week, as did “Ong Bak” and a few others, so “The Promise” might be gone soon. If it is still playing on the weekend I plan to see it again. It is an enthralling and hyper-romantic fable with a goddess who asks trick questions, a damsel in distress who can disarm an attacking army by doffing her cloak, a good guy who is the gold standard of good, a bad guy who is outrageously evil and two equivocal characters, both of whom gain redemption literally with their last breath.

If the cinematography isn’t perfect it will do until perfection is attained. Peter Pau Tak-Hai shot such luminous films as “The Bride with White Hair” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “A Fishy Story” and he almost outdoes himself here. There aren’t any shots, at least after just one viewing, that call attention to themselves—no flamboyant “look what I can do” with lighting and camera angles. Pau’s camera and lighting serve the story wonderfully. The score is masterful. It is always on target with what is happening on the screen but doesn’t underline the action. It is always present but never intrusive. Klaus Badelt, the composer, doesn’t have a huge body of work—about 25 movie scores, which is just getting started for a successful composer—but if he is able to do work of this quality for the next 15 or 20 years he will be thought of as the equal of Pino Donnagio, Howard Shore or James Newton Howard. Another 20 years or so and it will be Ennio Morricone, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. This may sound insane based on hearing only one score by Badelt but it really is that good.

Cecilia Cheung was incandescent as the Princess. Her beauty, while a possible distraction in other more gritty roles, served her very well here. She easily ran the scales from imperious, when she confronted Wuhuan massed army to heartbroken, when General Guangming was fooled into leaving her to both desperate and hopeful when she was locked up in the birdcage prison. Indeed one of the things I found wrong with “The Promise” was the overuse of CGI tears—during the scene between the Princess and Kunlun, when Kunlun tells her that he will testify that he killed the King while wearing the armor of the badly wounded general the Princess is shown in extreme close-up in profile. The eye we can see widens a bit, possibly because she understands that Kunlun is actually telling the truth and that he was her rescuer. But a computer generated tear rolled down her cheek just then, spoiling the moment.

Korean star Jang Dong-Gun was the slave—he has a very expressive face, here very open and honest. His part is written so that the audience will like him—he is always willing to sacrifice himself for his master, even to the extent of denying his feelings for the only woman he has ever loved. He moves from abject slave to national hero during the course of the movie and is believable every step of the way. Jang Dong-Gun is quite a guy; not only a movie star in Korea but also is a model and brand spokesman in great demand. His sheer star power is apparent from his first shot.

Wuhuan, as portrayed with lip-smacking glee by Nicholas Tse, is purely evil. He not only defeats his opponents but humiliates them personally because he enjoys it. He likes having other men in his power and when it comes time to do away with them he does it himself. No one—from the General to simple guards—is safe from his wrath. Hiroyuki Sanada’s performance as the General was often close enough to being over the top to be noticeable. The General was living a lie for most of the movie, and he really had to show it during close-ups from over Cecelia Cheung’s shoulder during an embrace. The General had manipulated Kunlun and the Princess in order to win back the earthly power he had lost. But now he had fallen in love with the Princess--and the Princess was in love with a false image of the General. He was aware of all of this and had to show every bit of it on his face during a few close-ups. It might be something that Olivier, Brando or Mifune in their prime could have done but it is just too much to ask of someone who is just a talented actor. Lau Yip as Snow Wolf had a great part and one with which the audience could easily identify but he was mainly makeup and costuming. Both Snow Wolf and the General went out on top—in each case the character died after making a noble and self-sacrificing decision.

The costuming and set design were almost special effects in themselves. The crimson armor was especially important and became a fetish. A slave wearing it convinced everyone that he was a great general and when the general was tricked into the trap set by his enemy he was led by the armor itself mounted on a standard. In only one case did the costumes, props and sets distract the audience from the story—this was whenever Goddess Manchen appeared. Showing up in human form, floating in the air, offering to solve human problems—but with a catch, there is always a catch when a god decides to intervene in worldly affairs—all of that made sense in the context of the fable and was necessary for the action to happen at all. But that hair, not only flowing straight up but also through a floating halo, made it difficult—impossible for me—to concentrate on what she was saying. Chen Kaige went overboard with the CGI in creating Manchen. Wuhuan’s costumes were very elaborate and beautifully designed but the most outrageous of them only had a few seconds of screen time, so they were very noticeable but not distracting. Regarding Chen Hong, she may well be a goddess or at least someone with some supernatural powers. Playing a featured role, even if it was all shot in front of a blue screen over a few days and being the production manager of the same movie is a task beyond the capabilities of most humans but she is credited as doing both.

Other than the Goddess (and all those damned tears) Chen Kaige used digital special effects the way they should be—to advance the plot, develop characters and do amazing scenes that simply can’t be done otherwise. One critic wrote that the stampede of the barbarians’ bulls was like the dinosaur stampede in “King Kong”—both might have been modeled on the running of the bulls in Pamplona, with huge creatures chasing key characters through a very narrow space. While there may be something to this, Peter Jackson’s dinosaurs wore out their welcome very quickly—the chase soon became an exercise is “Is it over yet?” while in “The Promise” the subsequent destruction of the barbarians couldn’t have happened without the stampede.
Reviewer Score: 8