Centuries ago, when cinematographers roamed feudal China (and art directors sat patiently at their feet, arranging the twirling petals of a blooming cherry blossom just so), all of Asia looked exactly like the cover of an old Emerson, Lake, and Palmer album. Or so you'd think. Watching The Promise - supposedly the most expensive movie ever made in China ($35 to $44 million, reportedly), opening today in Toledo - I had an incredible urge to hit pause (though you can't do that in a theater) and rummage in a stack of old vinyl.
Jethro Tull? Iron Butterfly?
I'd seen this opaque, overblown psychedelia before. I was sure of it. Yet I own no black-velvet paintings or even a lot of sci-fi paperbacks. Could it be, yes it could, Chinese director Chen Kaige - known for the rapturous look (but also, the emotional moorings) of his best film, Farewell My Concubine - had been seduced by the same high-flying Siegfried & Roy wire-work and delirious opulence that, as of late, seems to insist every important Chinese director of the past 20 years do a classy chop socky?
The Promise is full of magical landscapes and gravity-defying hair and billowing scarlet robes and swooning romanticism and soaring swordsman battling in thin air, and Chen has almost no interest in arranging scenes in any order that makes a bit of sense.
It hurtles along randomly.
He bets the house on style (a good call considering Concubine) but oddly has almost no feel for giving fantastical images any weight. Stranger still, The Promise might have played as eye candy (and at times it's lovely to stare at) but more of the time, for $35 million, you get an obvious blue screen in the blue-screen work, digital effects as chintzy as any world-class director has ever OK'd, and melodrama so spacey and cold it plays like a quaalude-laced version of lyrical martial-artsy blockbusters like House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
It's about as graceless as a movie made (with a straight face) about gracefulness and honor ever gets. You feel for Chen. The guy seems desperate.
It's a funny thing, too: We shake our heads at the way many of our best filmmakers shoot comic-book flicks and brainless escapism to keep a foot in Hollywood, but don't notice the way international cinema has it worse, particularly across Asia, where you either make horror films (as in Japan) or a martial-arts extravaganza (as in China). Otherwise, any hope of being seen outside Asia is dim, indeed.
Zhang Yimou made a smooth transition from historical epics like Ju Dou to action epics (steeped in ancient Chinese legend) like Hero. Ang Lee, who directed Crouching Tiger (then Hulk and Brokeback Mountain, in less than 10 years), always roots a gimmick in strong narrative, and so the gimmick falls away. But since the narrative of The Promise is meant in all earnestness and the frenetic action (which dominates the film) is so cartoony, you wonder how such a serious, gifted filmmaker justified such sloppiness to himself.
As for the story: A small girl is rescued by a goddess who promises the girl great fortune and beauty, but there's a catch. She will never fall in love with any man, not until time runs backwards, snow falls in spring, and the dead rise again. It truly is like an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer album cover: I have no idea what is going on, and of the small pieces I could follow, the filmmaking was too frenzied to be at all meaningful.
Best to take it as a folk tale.
One with an impenetrable love triangle, long stares (which indicate soulfulness), women in gilded cages, men in feathered clothing that makes them resemble the crows from Song of the South, red horse manes, and a stampede of Tibetan water buffalo outrun by a magical slave who, using Atari-generation animation, is from a village where the men learn to run really fast.
Which he does. A lot.
And outrace one arrow.
And you've outraced a quiver.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org