The Promise (Chen Kaige). 102 minutes. Opens Friday (May 5). Subtitled. For venues and times, see Movies, page 105. Rating: N Rating: N
The fantastical genres - the musical, the martial arts film - offer much tougher challenges than "regular" genres like westerns, family dramas or crime movies, because making their magic requires much more work. The Promise is a new entry in the expensive wuxia fantasy genre that has been revived since the Chinese realized, after the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which led to Zhang Yimou's Hero and House Of Flying Daggers), that these films could make money.
Directed and written by Chen Kaige , the first of the "fifth-generation" post-Cultural Revolution filmmakers (Zhang began his career as Chen's cinematographer on Yellow Earth), The Promise is evidence of how quickly a genre can decline into silliness. Or perhaps how an inability to transcend silliness can kill a film.
There's a legendary general, his fleet-footed slave, a beautiful princess and an evil general, and it's all about who's going to run the country and get the princess. This is no more ridiculous than any other movie about magic swords and people fighting atop bamboo forests and blind dancers belonging to legendary orders of assassins.
The problem ain't the material; it's the execution. Half of the film's $35-million budget was spent on digital effects, and nobody bothered to train the actors to do the requisite martial arts moves, so the digitally "enhanced" fight scenes are about as convincing as those in Catwoman.
Not good enough.