It’s hard to keep a straight face during Chen Kaige’s The Promise, but it’s not for lack of trying. The once heralded director of the Palme d’Or winning Farewell My Concubine is yet again trumped by Zhang Yimou. My, how that must sting. Both Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers—that first class of film-school students after China’s cultural revolution—Zhang and Chen have seemingly been neck and neck career-wise, even from the start. Chen’s auspicious beginnings were outdone by Zhang (Yellow Earth now looks jaundiced next to Red Sorghum, and Farewell My Concubine’s grandiose melodramatics were made frankly irrelevant by the following year’s lacerating, raw cultural history of China, To Live, from Zhang), and even as these two most famous of China’s “serious” export directors have moved towards more and more desperate mainstream acceptance, they remain on alarmingly similar missions. Chen’s sentimental teacher-pupil hokum Together seems especially muted when compared to Zhang’s lovely heart-on-its-sleeve reminiscence The Road Home and certainly next to the wonderful, neorealist schoolhouse drama Not One Less.
Chen Kaige certainly doesn’t seem to lack for ambition, yet so many of his projects come off as foolhardy, as if he’s trying hard to fit into a role he wasn’t born to play. Now, with Zhang Yimou’s odd mid-career turnaround into a mightily impressive action filmmaker and choreographer (Hero is one of the most visually stunning films of the decade, and House of Flying Daggers, whatever its flaws, manages to maintain its silly love-action parable from beginning to end with palpable tension, romance, and catharsis), Chen has followed suit with his own gravity-defying middlebrow martial-arts opus. The result is something you want to embrace for its stabs at sheer earnestness, its yearning for primal emotion and image, and its reach for myth. Sadly, it’s incoherent at best, and a noxious, pandering bit of Asian-export exoticism at worst. For anyone who tries to recoup the film as a pure-hearted myth (or, per a certain someone’s predictable glowing review: a Pop Art masterpiece…and “salvific”…LOL), I defy them to explain how its central love triangle (between a slave, a very anachronistically costumed hipster princess, and a general) plays out in any recognizably emotional or human context. It’s an endless cascade of slapdash effects and screwy visual metaphors; new action set pieces spring up like jack-in-the-boxes every few minutes, with no emotional or physical grounding. Here Chen has all the storytelling capabilities and respect for spatial coherence of a doodling toddler.
Apparently, this Promise is a severely truncated version of the original, much longer one shown in China. This may account for its nonsensical, rushed feel and overall crudeness, but it’s no excuse for the general weariness of the endeavor. Critics, like FX Feeney, who have compared it to Ford and Hawks obviously have no sense of aesthetics or film history, and that same aforementioned critic who writes (ahem), that “with The Promise, Chen Kaige joins cinema’s archetypal visionaries from Murnau to Kurosawa, Bertolucci to Boorman,” has obviously stopped watching movies as we know them. In the most hilarious sequence, which comes near the beginning, and with one fell swoop slaughters the entire film, the slave (Jang Dong-Kun, whose wide-eyed innocence shtick grows old even faster than Cecilia Cheung’s pathetic haughty princess routine) literally outruns a pack of wild, trampling bulls. With its pasty, pre-Young Sherlock Holmes digital effects gloss, the scene has no sense of composition or scale. It’s just a frenetic whirlwind of movement. The bulls look like bundles of pixels; Jang Dong-Kun looks like Speedy Gonzalez. Which would be fine if this were a children’s film, and not a “master” director’s disingenuous stab at big-budget credibility.