The story is fairly routine Chinese fantasy of the so-called Wuxia variety, closer in tone to the more elaborate mythos of "Hero" than something as relatively grounded as Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." In a distant past a young girl named Qingcheng -- orphaned by a bloody war -- makes a Faustian bargain with a winsome goddess, forfeiting true and enduring love in exchange for lifelong riches. Years later, she has grown into a fetching princess (Cecilia Cheung), a human trophy coveted by three men -- the mighty General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada), a former slave turned hypersonic hero named Kunlun (Jang Dong-Kun) and the General's ruthless rival, Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse). For audiences not well-steeped in the genre, the ensuing schemes and entanglements are likely to seem confusing, even by "Hero" standards. Like Shakespeare on steroids, it abounds in crosses and double-crosses, mistaken identities, elaborate deceptions, sudden romantic reversals and the somewhat haphazard and convenient application of magic as a narrative device. Were this just another Hong Kong Wuxia epic from the '90s, it would fall squarely in line with the likes of "Swordsman," "The Kung Fu Cult Master," "The Eagle Shooting Heroes," "The Bride With White Hair" and "Zu Warriors From the Magic Mountain." But swollen expectations, perhaps even unfair expectations that a filmmaker of Chen's stature would match the achievements of Lee or Zhang, make it hard to see "The Promise" as anything but a failed misadventure.
Perhaps even more disappointing than the film's narrative missteps are its technical failings. From "Farewell My Concubine" to "Temptress Moon," Chen's reputation has been one of a meticulous and uncompromising craftsman. The same could be said for cinematographer Peter Pau, who soared to stateside fame with his work on Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." But here, both seem overwhelmed by the sheer size of the effort, never able to elevate emotion over expanse. It's too often expanse without adequate investment, however, undermined by shoddy costume work ("Power Rangers"-style molded-plastic armoring) and computer-generated effects so bad as to be laughable.
Even still, it's hard to resist the feeling that "The Promise" could have been hammered into shape under the right supervision -- in the hands, say, of someone like Tsui Hark, a director with an established aptitude for this kind of material. One can only hope that Chen takes this as a learning experience and returns to the kind of artistry with which he first forged his very deserved reputation. Starring Hiroyuki Sanada, Nicholas Tse, Jang Dong-Kun and Cecilia Cheung. Directed and written by Chen Kaige. Produced by Hong Chen, Sanping Han, Dong-ju Kim and Ernst Etchie Stroh. A Warner Independent release. Martial arts fantasy. Mandarin-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 102 min