I'm not sure if Chen Kaige's The Promise 無極 is out in the States. If you have a chance though, I kind of recommend it in sort of a car crash kind of way. Although Chen Kaige is probably the second most famous Sixth Generation Chinese film maker, (The most famous director being of course Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige's former cinematographer, but I digress.) I guess I've never really enjoyed his films all that much. I've seen quite a few of them, I even wrote my thesis on Farewell My Concubine 霸王別姬. The only one I enjoyed was The Emperor and the Assassin. I guess to me, Chen Kaige's movies tend to be sort of overly ponderous. And recently people have criticized him for making that art house type of movie starring Gong Li that was pioneered (with great success) by Zhang Yimou. At his best, Chen Kaige uses his films to discuss interesting ideas. The Cultural Revolution, in Farewell My Concubine, which had a great deal of personal impact to him. In The Emperor and the Assassin, the idea that power corrupts. As for Temptress Moon 風月 , I have no idea what that was about. It was also just kind of bad.
Ok, so with that paragraph of Chinese studies nerdiness aside. The Promise was a highly anticipated movie. Chen Kaige's great fantasy/martial arts(ish) epic. In roughly the same vein as Crouching Tiger and Hero. The cast is pretty good, although most of the actors are unknown to Western audiences. Cecilia Cheung and Nicolas Tze, Hong Kong superstars, Liu Ye, of Lan Yu fame.
Cecilia Cheung plays the most beautiful woman in the world, who as a starving orphan was made into the most beautiful woman in the world by a mysterious goddess, under the condition that she never know true love. Anyway, naturally, she has a lot of guys chasing after her. Such as an arrogant General, his slave who can run at superhuman speed, and the Duke, who wields a golden finger on a stick (DON'T ASK).
Cecilia Cheung falls in love with the slave, but he was wearing the General's armor at the time, so she think she loves the general. And the slave, Kunlun is too obedient of a guy to set her straight. Anyway, the general naturally loves her too. Meanwhile she's sometimes caught by the Duke who puts her in a giant bird cage and puts a bird costume on her. Meanwhile Kunlun is trying to find out about his past, and why he runs so fast that he can apparently run through time. Meanwhile, the Duke's assassin Guilang, who seems to know a lot about Kunlun's past, follows him around in a bird cloak that the Duke put on him. Hopefully, this plot outline makes some sense, I don't know that the movie made a whole lot of sense to me in particular.
To be fair there are some good things about the movie, so let's get them out of the way first. Cecilia Cheung does look like she could be the most beautiful woman in the world. Liu Ye is good in his secondary role, he's probably the only character that I cared about. Sometimes the movie does look quite fantastic.
However, the plot is so incoherent that it's difficult to connect with the characters. You never really know why people are doing what they're doing. Why is the Duke evil? All he seems to do is put bird costumes on people, does this make him evil? Why is he more evil than the General, who is seen sending some slaves to their death with very little remorse at all? Why is Kunlun so loyal to the General, who never really shows much concern for him. Stealing his girl, taking him as a slave etc. Why is the goddess wandering around manipulating events? What does she want? The movie never really answers these questions. Furthermore the ending is rather unsatisfying and seems to be one which we're supposed to think is "deep" or "philosophical," although it mostly comes across as pat.
Furthermore, for a movie that seems to rely on the visuals to carry part of the movie, it doesn't always look that good. The armor is clearly made of plastic. And the silly props, such as THE FINGER really make it hard to take the movie seriously. To top it all off the action scenes don't even look all that cool.
So to sum up, the plot and the sort of over the top visuals really kill the movie. The acting's mostly ok. But the plot makes it really difficult to care about the characters, and only Liu Ye actually made enough of a connection for me to care about him. I mean, it's kind of bad when the one person who resonates in a movie, is the tragic assassin. Chen Kaige just seems to waste a lot of opportunities, I mean if you're going to pay money for Nicholas Tse to appear in your movie, shouldn't you at least make him look cool? Instead, Chen Kaige saddles him with a golden finger and silver lipstick. And by the time he's whining about his child hood trauma, I've ceased to care whether any of the characters live or die.
checklist of CTHD clones
Zhang Ziyi: No
Gratutitous martial arts scenes: Check
Yuen Woo ping: No
Use of bright color for symbolism: Check