*/**** Image A Sound A- Extras C
starring Hiroyuki Sanada, Jang Dong Gun, Cecilia Cheung, Nicholas Tse
screenplay by Chen Kaige and Zhang Tan
directed by Chen Kaige
by Walter Chaw Any fad reaches its nadir in due time and the Western wuxia infatuation, which started somewhere around Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and more or less peaked with Zhang Yimou's exceptional Hero, has found its basement in the truncated version of Chen Kaige's already-pretty-embarrassing The Promise. Somewhere, King Hu is spinning in his grave. An abomination just about any way you slice it, this ultra-expensive, CGI'd-to-exhaustion wire-fu epic--especially as sanitized for North America's consumption--suggests the world's saddest public display of penis envy. Chen, hailing from the same Fifth Generation school as Zhang, produces a show-offy, self-indulgent bit of flamboyant one-upsmanship destined to become a queer camp classic. When the Crimson General (Hiroyuki Sanada) trades in his fabulous duds for a lavender muumuu in which to trade barbs with archenemy Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse, suspended somewhere between pretty girl and Japanese anime hero), a bad guy garbed in white feathers who wields a gold staff topped with a bronze hand, index finger extended in proctological menace, the homoeroticism of the piece--already distracting in the subtext--suddenly becomes the main event. It's probably this unfathomable cut of the film's Rosetta Stone, in fact, pared down to some half-assed companion piece to Chen's own Farewell My Concubine. Without much strain you can see The Promise being transformed, in all its kitsch excess, into a Broadway pop-opera: Memoirs of a Geisha: The Musical.
Opening with a really bad deal--one that, incidentally, spoils the rest of the film's plot--a little urchin strikes with a goddess (Chen Hong), the picture immediately betrays itself with more canted angles than Battlefield Earth and a long, computer-generated shot of a tasty biscuit sinking into a bog. The green underwater light dimples as Chen and his merry band of hyperactive technicians turn in a feature-length rendition of one of those "Final Fantasy" interstitials. From there, we skip forward a few decades to find the Crimson General taking a Thermopilian stand against a horde of barbarians by sacrificing a few hundred slaves in what must be one of the stupidest moments in, let's face it, a frequently-stupid genre. One slave, Kunlun (Jang Dong-Kun), survives because he's crazy-fast; a weird scene transpires in which Kunlun begs to be the General's slave, followed by a series of misunderstandings as Kunlun rescues a pretty girl (Cecilia Cheung) from an evil king, falls in love, does the Cyrano, grows a pair, gains a backstory, and bores us to distraction: we don't think to ask why, for instance, a captive girl in a gilded cage comes to greet her emancipator descending from a staircase leading from nowhere.
The U.S. edition of The Promise is a debris field. Without proclaiming the original a masterpiece (it's bad, but not quite a boondoggle), the redux is a disaster of the gaudiest kind, the sort of spectacle that's almost as effective as a lobotomy in neutralizing thought processes--enough so that the peculiar bits of homoeroticism (not even counting the feather boas and mascara that act as character development for our boys) that erupt now and again in lieu of anything else happening generally only register in the rear-view. It was never really about anything--now it's also mainly an attempt to piggy-back on the "crossover" hit parade, meaning that it mimics everything, going about it so indiscriminately that the picture's inherent imitation registers as cynical and aggressive. (At the risk of acknowledging too much, it reminds me a lot of that episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" called "Samaritan Snare," wherein a race of pig-like aliens appropriate technology without understanding, nor wishing to understand, anything beyond the rudiments of function.) Meanwhile, the things that wouldn't have been instantly obsolete, like story and character, are shuffled off to the wings.
As a fan of the genre, one who took a certain comfort in its power of cultural diffusion despite its perpetuating certain Asian stereotypes, I found The Promise particularly disappointing. It isn't an expression of artistry and vision that's true to its roots in Chinese myth, stage, and screen, it's an expression of a distributor's desire to earn boffo box-office while regaining the attention of foreign financiers on the back of the genre's own cultural legacy (and its recent renaissance abroad)--an object of derision that substantiates criticism of the wuxia. Worse, it justifies a specific type of racism whereby you write off all manner of ignorance and vulgarity simply because it's foreign. Borat! takes advantage of that paternalism to prick us where we're vulnerable; The Promise, intentional or not, takes advantage of it for different reasons altogether.
Warner shuttles the stateside edit of The Promise to DVD in a gorgeous rendering that ironically makes all the settings in the picture seem Pixar-fabricated. (A good thing in a cartoon, not so great in what are ostensibly live environments.) Presented in a 2.36:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, it actually looks better at home than it did in theatres, though derelict grain is more prevalent on the small screen. Although the DD 5.1 audio (in Mandarin, the preferred, or English, the default) can be said to fully exploit the discrete channels, there's ultimately a timidity to the mix: in a film that sports armies of thousands and, early on, a stampede of bulls, you'd think you'd be blown through the back of your screening room. Seven deleted/extended sequences, many of them culled from the international version (which runs twenty minutes longer), re-establish the contentious, hubristic relationship between the Crimson General and the goddess Manshen. It's an association that serves to enhance the other characters, tying them to a firmer bedrock of archetypes involving trickster gods and the unfortunate wagers that mortals make: Epimethius vs. Prometheus across time and culture. Single-page title cards offer excuses for each individual elision (most of them having to do with pace), and while I'll acknowledge that the 102-minute abridgement hums along pretty quickly, what's the use of expediency if such things as a rationale for the central romance of the piece are left on the cutting-room floor? Originally published: January 19, 2007.