Veering between stylish arthouse hits (Farewell My Concubine, The Emperor And The Assassin) and bland genre failures, Fifth Generation Chinese director Chen Kaige has seen his critical reckoning and future prospects jag up and down like a California seismograph. In that respect, his gorgeous, mythic new wu xia feature The Promise seems almost like a gimmick, a calculated crowd-pleaser designed to win back his fans after the one-two whiff of his weak English-language thriller Killing Me Softly and the dull, overlong family drama Together. But gimmick or no, the film works wonders toward restoring his good name. A deft, expansive, beautifully realized epic fable in the mode of Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Promise is an unadulterated pleasure from beginning to end.
As the film opens, a starving young girl stealing food from battlefield corpses is approached by a goddess, who proffers a deal: As an adult, she can be the most beautiful, coveted woman in the world, but she will always lose any man she truly loves. The girl agrees, and is next seen as grown-up Cecilia Cheung, the Emperor's concubine and a practiced, heartless manipulator of men. Meanwhile, the Emperor's forces enter battle under famed general Hiroyuki Sanada, who quickly learns that Dong-Kun Jang, a slave he bought as cannon fodder, has an inhuman, impossible gift for speed. After winning the battle via a great deal of the kind of cartoony, over-the-top CGI silliness that packed Kung Fu Hustle, Sanada makes Jang his personal attendant and sends him off to encounter the Emperor and Cheung, setting the stage for a complicated love triangle involving mistaken identities, a magical assassin, a lost country, a great deal of lush pageantry, and a thoroughly fairy-tale-esque aesthetic.
Like so many wu xia films, The Promise naturally expresses its mythic qualities through stunning visuals, breathtaking costuming, and a great deal of action, and it adds in Kaige's Ridley Scott-like fondness for vistas full of floating, drifting objects, from feathers to flower petals to snow. But the resonance goes much deeper, thanks to a compelling story that uses notions of feudal honor, class barriers, and destiny to temper the characters' passion; the principals' respect for and obligations to each other make the story far more compelling and tragic than simple romantic competition could. For Kaige, The Promise can't exactly be called a return to form—it's more a return to Hero and House Of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou's form. Either way, it's still glorious.