Riding a wave of unabashed fantasy and incendiary anticipation, Chen Kaige's "The Promise" -- at $30 million, China's most expensive film -- defies both gravity and logic. Pic is a mixed bag of near-risible storylines, second-rate CG effects, some fabulous set pieces, somewhat cartoonish martial arts fighting and difficult international casting.

Riding a wave of unabashed fantasy and incendiary anticipation, Chen Kaige’s “The Promise” — at $30 million, China’s most expensive film — defies both gravity and logic. Pic is a mixed bag of near-risible storylines, second-rate CG effects, some fabulous set pieces, somewhat cartoonish martial arts fighting and difficult international casting. The 121-minute original was released in December in Asian markets, scoring a terrific $17.5 million so far in China alone. This U.S. release trimmed 19 minutes from that version and reportedly rearranged the complex story’s elements. Pic opened Dec. 30 for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles and will open domestically in 2006. While the Weinstein Co. is no longer Stateside distrib, pic figures to score a new partner, but more Yank coin seems destined to come from homevid than theatrical.

At the start of the pic, a goddess offers a young female war orphan, who defied the son of a warrior, a life of riches — with the caveat that she’s destined to lose every man she falls in love with. The only way to break the bond is to reverse time, or as some term it, “make the dead come to life.”

From the enchanting if bittersweet opening, the film moves ahead 20 years to an extended and frantically edited battle sequence intro’ing General Guangming, played by Hiroyuki Sanada (“The White Countess,” “The Twilight Samurai”) leading his trapped and outnumbered army against barbarian hordes. But slave Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun, showing a portion of the intensity he fired up for Korean war epic “Tae-guk-gi”) saves the day with superhuman speed that defies a stampede of bulls. Kunlun so impresses the General, now the wearer of crimson armor for his triumph, that the General makes him his personal slave.

Pic’s narrative pivot occurs during a nocturnal encounter in the woods between the General and Kunlun, en route to rescuing their King (Cheng Qian) from attack, and black-cloaked assassin Snow Wolf (Liu Ye). Kunlun, disguised as the General, races to save the potentate from arrogant invader Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), but finds Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung), the former orphan who’s now a princess, being verbally upbraided, then physically attacked by the King for being strong-willed.

Kunlun’s rescue of Qingcheng from the King sends “The Promise” into an ever-thickening maze of plots twists as both master and slave fall deeply in love with the princess, and Wuhuan works his evil ways with ambushes and betrayals.

In many respects, Chen’s and Zhang Tan’s script (based on Chen’s story) relies on common motifs from innumerable “wuxha” fantasies, and spins around the basic idea that until very late into the action, Qingcheng is unaware that the hero she truly loves isn’t the slightly pompous General, but rather the gutsy Kunlun posing as the General.

Though the building blocks of a fine epic fantasy are in place, stuttered pacing and transition hiccups in the pic’s midsection produce a pattern of characters literally running all over the place for last-minute rescues that soon become comical. Even in fantasy, an internal logic must apply. Pic seems to lose sight of this fact, though it remains unclear in the shorter edition if the problem can be ascribed to the re-editing and trimming or the script.

There are enough hints, especially in revelations involving Kunlun, Snow Wolf and their past, along with Qingcheng’s destiny, to suggest a mainstream variation on the highly abstract, romantic martial arts fantasia in Wong Kar-wai’s “Ashes of Time.” The emotional distance in storytelling that has harmed such past Chen epics as “The Emperor and the Assassin” recurs here, but for different reasons: The generous servings of poorly realized CG effects, from the bull stampede on, imprint “The Promise” with a cartoonish quality that undercuts the tale’s emotional textures.

By Hollywood standards, effects are distressingly shoddy, made more of an issue by how much of them are poured into nearly every scene. Such effects work harmed recent Jackie Chan epic, “The Myth,” pointing to a worrying aesthetic by contempo Chinese helmers opting for digital tricks instead of the far more effective on-camera effects of the past.

Although non-Asian auds will be unaffected by the multinational casting of stars Sanada and Jang, the thesps are much more confident with the physical and visual aspects of their difficult roles than with the Mandarin dialogue. Mandarin-speaking auds have been loudly critical of non-Chinese actors’ accents (mirroring Western critics of Chinese thesps struggling with affected English in “Memoirs of a Geisha”).

Hong Kong star Cheung as the seemingly doomed princess caught in the middle exudes elegant tragedy, providing the pic with what emotional center it has. Fellow H.K. star (and Cheung’s real-life ex-lover) Tse delightfully devours his baddie role, playing the right caustic notes in a good if one-dimensional turn, while Liu’s Snow Wolf vibrantly hints at a character worthy of his own movie.

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” lenser Peter Pau and production designer and co-costume designer Tim Yip (with fellow costume designer Kimiya Masago) particularly shine in the tableaux quality of “The Promise’s” extended exterior sequences.

Composer Klaus Badelt swamps the film in excessive samplings of generic “Asian” music as imagined by a Westerner.

Original title literally translates as “no limitation.”

The slimmer version, which will be seen everywhere but in parts of Asia, had been titled “Master of the Crimson Armor,” while “The Promise” was pic’s international title and the moniker it’s going under as China’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar at the original length.

Print screened was titled “Master of the Crimson Armor,” but will revert back to “The Promise” with the Weinsteins’ departure. (Print ads will note the shorter version as “aka Master of the Crimson Armor” as a small subtitle.)

To read Robert Koehler’s review of the 121-minute version, click here.

The Promise aka Master of the Crimson Armor

China-U.S.

Production

Corrections were made to this review on Jan. 13, 2006. A Moonstone Entertainment presentation of a Beijing 21st Century/Shengkai/China Film Group/Capgen Investment Group/Moonstone Prods. production. (International sales: Moonstone Entertainment, Studio City.) Produced by Chen Hong, Han San Ping, Etchie Stroh. Executive producers, Chen, Yang Buting, Hu Lan, Stroh. Co-producers, Jing Tao, Chen Rao, Shi Dongming. Directed by Chen Kaige. Screenplay, Chen, Zhang Tan; story, Chen.

Crew

Camera (Cineart color, widescreen), Peter Pau; editor, Zhou Ying; music, Klaus Badelt; production designer, Tim Yip; art directors, Yang Baigui, Yang Gang; costume designer, Kimiya Masago, Yip; makeup, Yang Shudong, Ji Weihua, Yang Xiaohai, Lui Jun; sound (Dolby Digital), Wang Danrong; supervising sound editors, Meng Peicong, Zhao Nan, Wang Gang; visual effects supervisor, John Chu; CG supervisors, Wai Kit Leung, Ken Law; visual effects, Centro Digital Pictures; conceptual designers, Kwok Ming Chim, Honkaz Fung, Andrew Chen; action choreographers, Wei Tung, Dion Lam; stunt coordinator, Kang Jingqui; associate producers, D.J. Kim, Show East Co., Zhao Haicheng, Xu Jianhai, Zhang Fu, Deng Meng; assistant directors, Shiu Lei, Wang Weimin; second unit directors, Lam, Wei; second unit camera, Choi Sung Fai. Reviewed at Wilshire screening room, Beverly Hills, Dec. 28, 2005. (Also in Berlin Film Festival, noncompeting.) Running time: 102 MIN. (Mandarin dialogue)

With

General Guangming - Hiroyuki Sanada Kunlun - Jang Dong Gun Qingcheng - Cecilia Cheung Wuhuan - Nicholas Tse Snow Wolf - Liu Yeh Goddess Manshen - Chen Hong One-eye - Qian Bo Yeli - Yu Xiaowei King - Cheng Qian

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