On the official site of the film The Promise there is a Director’s Statement that details more or less the why, the what, and the how of the film production. It seems that director Chen Kaige’s reasoning for doing this is simple: fate, and he explains that fate is also what The Promise is about. Among all the far-fetched fate theories and explanations, there are a few things that are worthy of mentioning here. One part that really stood out about Kaige’s vision is the following: “Their (the characters from the film) dance with destiny would be choreographed not only by these powerful drives and desires (greed, ambition, loyalty, revenge, and unremitting search for true love), but also by promises and contracts made years before – each setting his or her won course for themselves earlier in their lives.” He later states that the film’s goal is to show the viewer that people can change their own fate if they simply tried hard enough and the title of the film itself has a similar symbolic meaning. A promise can be broken; fate can be changed, etc. It is a very big theme to tackle and many of the movie’s failures should be attributed to that. I mean, Kaige is dealing with a subject as general and encompassing as the meaning of life, and his need to explore that subject unfortunately overshadows the need for the film to entertain.
The Promise is a slow-moving film with mandarin being the only spoken language. Many people have called it boring and confusing, or pretentious and useless. The fact is that it is none of those things. It is a beautiful film, backed up by a script that feels almost like it was constructed by Kaige’s theories and beliefs. The film is at times heavy-handed and tries to do too many things at once, but it is never unimaginative or inorganic (even the fight scenes that use the same style as Crouching tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers, and Hero look like they aren’t just attempts at copying those film’s action sequences).
It tells the story of a young orphaned girl that makes a promise to a magical Goddess (Hong Chen), in return for beauty, and the love and admiration of every man. The promise is that she will never be with the man she loves. The only way the promise can be broken is if two impossible things happen – snow falls in spring and the dead come back to life. I want to interrupt the plot outline here and say how symbolic that promise is. The two impossible things symbolize how hard it is to change fate and how hard a person must try to change it. Anyways, back to the plot… Years after she made that promise everything the Goddess told her has come true. She is a beautiful princess (Cecily Cheung) and every man falls head-over-heels for her, but the ones she does actually love die tragically. She starts regretting the promise she made, especially after she falls in love with a mysterious man who saves her from death and he dies. Another victim of fate is Kunlun (Dong_KUn Jang) a slave searching for the roots of his lost family. Soon the princess and Kunlun meet, as if it was fate, and have to battle against fate, but the question is – does that really have to be their fate?
The script by Kaige jumps from place to place, from scene to scene, without much warning or transitions. He only wants to send his message – that we can change fate. That results in dialogue that is out of place and at times even too abstract to understand what it really means. Of course that is common in period pieces, so I let that go. Especially, since the movie isn’t propelled forward by dialogue, but by the actions of the characters. That sends a conflicting message, since many people say that the only thing fate doesn’t control is what comes out of a person’s mouth, so the characters in the movie almost always seem to be moved by fate, whether it is Kaige’s intention to show that or not.
The acting in this film is way below par. No one does a good job here, and the only reason the Princess character is as tolerable as she is, because actress Cecily Cheung is so beautiful that you just feel like forgiving her for the bad acting. The less said about the other actors the better. Still, this is an example of how bad acting can absolutely destroy a movie’s chances. A lot of the scenes that are intended to be emotional are bound to get laughs from the audience because of the way the actors play it out. But you must be asking yourself: “Why is this such a big deal? Hero had bad acting and it ultimately worked. Why can’t this?” Well, it’s because this picture is about a lot more than just visual meaning. Kaige wants his actors to display emotions in a lot of scenes in the film. It is Kaige’s use of emotion that is the main thing selling the message to the audience and it is Kaige’s failure to direct the actors well, that prevents the message from going over as well as it should. It is a shame, because Kaige’s critically acclaimed Farewell, My Concubine had some great acting and it obviously worked better than this.
However, this film is technically perfect. The only people who will complain about the ‘fakeness’ of the special effects will be the ones that won’t let the film involve them as deeply as it is meant to involve the viewer. From the scene with the Goddess to the battles, to the pigmented journey that Kunlun has to go through, this film ranks as one of the most beautiful films ever made. There isn’t a bland frame here and cinematographer Peter Pau deserves awards. Many awards. The music by Klaus Badelt is also great although he does resort to the familiar MediaVentures sound that Hans Zimmer created.
Overall, this film’s scope is as large as they come, both artistically and thematically. Still, because of the unbelievablity of almost all of the scenes that involve actual acting – this film amounts to nothing more than a curiosity. That was definitely not the way anyone involved in the production wanted it to end up, considering this is the most expensive film in Japanese history costing $42, 000,000. But the end result is at best a high-concept, interesting failure.