Thursday, April 20, 2006

Adam falls in love with The Promise
Chen Kaige's The Promise is breathtakingly gorgeous on a level few films can touch.
A melange of beautiful scenery, sets and computer graphics, the film attempts to show things on an epic scale that even Xiang Yimou's Hero or House of Flying Daggers never even attempted to. It's a grand, sprawling fairy tale writ in every cinematic trick at this master's disposal.
The story itself, though dense, is rather simplistic, but in the hands of a master like Chen Kaige (Raise the Red Lantern) it becomes a thing of ethereal beauty and wonderment. The fantastic elements of the story would have been rather clunky prior to the latest technological advances in film craft, and the filmmakers do their best to accomplish the visualization of the fantasy-scapes given the supposedly primitive technology available to Chinese filmmakers (compared to Hollywood).

Qingcheng (Guan Xiaotong), an orphan of war, makes a bargain with the Goddess Manshen (Chen Hong) to ease her suffering. She makes a promise to love no man until time runs backwards and the dead return to life. Every man she loves, she will lose. But, for this sacrifice, she will become every man's desire and will never know material want.
Qingcheng grows to unearthly beauty and grace (looking a hell of a lot like Celia Cheung) and becomes the consort to the King (Cheng Qian). The King has two principal generals; Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) the Master of the Crimson Armor, who is loyal to the king but ruthless and cruel enough to send hundreds of slaves to their death to lure out his enemies and Wuhuan the Duke of the North (Nicholas Tse), who is disloyal and desires Qingcheng.
One of the slaves, Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun), proves to be a rather exceptional individual, possessed of inhuman speed and a pure heart. When he and the other slaves are sent out on their suicide mission, he manages to turn the tide of the battle, leading a stampede of bulls that the barbarians sent to crush them back to its source. The general rides in with his army, swinging his brass balls (no kidding, that's his weapon of choice) and whups some barbarian behind.
Guangming, fresh from his victory over the army of barbarians, recieves word that Wuhuan is laying siege to the king's palace. He takes his slave Kunlun and sets out for the palace to save the king. They get lost in a forest and separate to find a way out. Guangming meets the Manshen in the forest and she tells him that not only will he fail to save the king, but the Master of the Crimson Armor will actually slay the King. Guangming denies that he'd do such a thing, so she proposes a wager. If he saves the King, he will never fail in battle. If he loses, however, he will have to give her a single bitter tear of the heartbreak that is to come to him.
Wuhuan sends his best operative, Snow Wolf (Liu Ye), an assassin who's possessed of a magical cloak that makes him swifter than time itself. Snow Wolf finds Guangming and manages to injure him before Kunlun arrives and attacks him. Snow Wolf recognizes certain qualities in Kunlun and announces he will not kill him.
Too injured to go on, Guangming has Kunlun put on his armor and finish the rescue mission. He instructs Kunlun that the king will be the only one without a weapon.
Meanwhile, the King and Qingcheng confront Wuhuan from the walls of their palace. Qingcheng offers to remove a layer of her clothing if Wuhuan's army lays down their arms and doesn't attack the king. When they start to actually do this, the king tells her to keep stripping until they all drop their weapons.
Qingcheng feels betrayed by this and spurns the King. This throws him into a rage and he attacks her with a sword. When Kunlun shows up in the general's armor, the only unarmed person is the Princess. So, he kills the King (fulfilling Manshen's prophecy) and escapes with Qingcheng. They're cornered by a cliff by Wuhuan and his men and he gives Guangming a choice: jump off the cliff and kill himself or Qingcheng dies.
Kunlun, ever loyal to his master (and already hopelessly in love with Qingcheng) dives over the edge without a moment's hesitation (capturing Qingcheng's heart with his selfless heroism -- except, of course, she thinks he's Guangming).
Yes, Kunlun survives. He's a hero, after all. And Guangming isn't necessarily going to turn down Qingcheng's advances when she sees him again -- he is a guy, after all. Cecilia Cheung might not be a Zhang Ziyi or an Amy Yip, but she's still a hottie -- and she's got that divine mojo working for her, too.

If you think this is a dense story, you don't know the half of it. That's only the first quarter of the film. There's still an hour and a half left after that.
There are also other things going on from the get-go that don't truly come to fruition until the end of the film. Wuhuan's motives are more complicated than he lets on, for instance, and he doesn't desire to possess Qingcheng. Instead, he wants her to suffer, keeping her in a gilded cage. And Guangming, desires the bliss of being with Qingcheng so much that he'd give up his martial glory. Even Snow Wolf, obedient lapdog to Wuhuan, has an agenda -- in spite of the fact that if Wuhuan takes his cloak away, he'll cease to exist, dissolving into a wisp of the wind.

Chen Kaige has a lot of help in making this film look spectacular, especially from cinematographer Peter Pau. This really is a sumptuously gorgeous movie. The sets are huge and blend in well with the CG effects. Some of the FX look hokey by American standards, but they're also stylized enough that they look occasionally like the illustrations in a book -- which I believe they're meant to.
After all, as I said before, this is more a fairy tale by Western standards than anything else. It's a mythical saga the likes of which we haven't seen much of yet. Thanks to advances in cinematic technology, imagination and the wherewithal to execute it are the only limitations on a filmmaker's creativity. Movies like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars films have shown that the sky no longer is the limit for storytelling on film.

The Promise is just the latest attempt at utilizing this technology to tell a story that wouldn't have been possible before. Does it work on all levels? Well, no. The effects do occasionally get uneven -- but if you look at them with a less critical eye and realize that you truly are watching an illustrated fable, you can forgive the level of prowess and let the story do its work. Kind of like how you can forgive older films their technical flaws and enjoy them for their thematic triumphs. Just because a film isn't made with the latest and greatest new toys and technical doodads doesn't mean it's not worthy of notice or praise. What matters is the finished product as a whole and what it can do to you intellectually or emotionally.
This film is meant to engage the simplest sense of wonder -- the characters are both more and less than today's humans, having amazing powers but uncomplicated natures. Like the Greek or Norse myths, these Chinese legends are meant to illustrate the human condition with broad strokes. The Promise is about how love makes us do things -- both foolish and heroic. It's a motivator to all mankind. How it affects each of the three heroes of the tale varies based on the men -- their personalities, their histories and their motivations. In addition, what Qingcheng will do for true and enduring love, after a lifetime of loss and denial, drives all four of the lead characters to an inevitable conflict at the end of the film.

Chinese filmmakers have long been attempting to stretch the limits of their craft, which is why so many genres get a much-needed kick in the pants there. Action movies today would be stale without John Woo, Ringo Lam, Jackie Chan and Johnnie To. Comedy wouldn't be quite so limitless in its wackiness without Stephen Chow. Fantasy film wouldn't look quite so fantastic without Tsui Hark, Yuen Woo-Ping and Ronnie Yu.
The mining of ancient Chinese legends and fables is the latest way to showcase how far the science of cinema has progressed -- and how much we can do to create motion pictures that exist in different realities than what we're used to. Hopefully, these visions will inspire Western filmmakers to revisit their own heroic myths in a new and exciting way. The upcoming Beowulf may well be the beginning of something even more amazing -- as it is a fully motion-captured animated film that won't be held down by sets or makeup or even physics. Mo-cap will allow for performance by the actors to be preserved unlike conventional animation (and hopefully won't make the characters look as much like the walking dead as they did in The Polar Express).
It's an exciting time to be a movie fan.

The Promise hits US theaters on May 5 in limited release.

No comments: