"A Promise" manages to be delicate without being sappy and atmospheric without becoming lethargic.

A simple love story played out in a pretty Suzhou town famous for birthing a type of Chinese opera, “A Promise” manages to be delicate without being sappy and atmospheric without becoming lethargic. Tale of a Hong Kong playwright hoping to find the girl he fell for 10 years earlier has a fragility that’s comparatively rare in Mainland Chinese cinema, and is closer to South Korean or Japanese mellers in its precision and emotional fabric. Opening film at China’s Golden Rooster Film Festival — held in Suzhou, late October — should segue into Asia-friendly fest sidebars.

Pic distantly recalls Mainland helmer Sun Zhou’s 1992 “Heartstrings” in its use of music, memory and metaphysics. However, there’s a softness and lightness to the movie — partly thanks to a terrific perf by its 20-year-old lead actress — that separates it even from Sun’s film.

Opening is not promising, as Cantonese writer Auyeung San-tek (Tse Kwan-ho), curiously dubbed “Reed” in the subtitles, intros himself in v.o. as he sullenly makes his way to the canal-filled town of Qiandeng, the home of Kunqu Opera. A loner, with few friends, he’s keeping an appointment with a Kunqu Opera student, Xiaohui, aka “Rebecca,” he met in Taiwan a decade ago. She later vanished, but sent him a postcard saying that, if they were still in love, they’d meet in 10 years in her grandfather’s hometown.

San-tek’s self-absorbed, cliche-artist character — dourly played by H.K. legit actor Tse in the early stages — doesn’t bode well for the movie. But things start to pick up as San-tek is taken to his boutique hotel by the graceful Xiaohe, aka “Lily” (opera student-turned-actress Yin Shuo, billed in the credits as “Princess Yin”). Xiaohe looks after her silent grandma (Hu Lifang) and rents out rooms in their traditional courtyard home.

As San-tek waits for Xiaohui to contact him, he receives an antique bamboo flute anonymously, by mail. As the days pass, he’s drawn out of his shell by the perky, optimistic Xiaohe, who’s also studied Kunqu Opera. Very slowly, their growing friendship starts to parallel his earlier experience with Xiaohui and develops real tenderness as Xiaohe lets her protective guard down. Then one day, still with no word from Xiaohui, San-tek chances on a clue to the missing woman’s past.

Pic is basically a two-character mood piece, and depends a lot on the chemistry between Tse and Yin. This is slow to start but develops a real tenderness by small increments, especially from Yin as the smalltown girl whose horizons suddenly broaden, but is afraid she may, like her predecessor, be left on her own.

Though the film is explicitly dedicated to the 600th anni of Kunqu Opera, it’s much more than just a commissioned infomercial. First-time feature helmer Cui Yi, himself born in Suzhou, is on record as saying he wanted to show another side of the region, already well-used as a movie backdrop. Congruence of the pic’s out-of-season setting, Zhu Jiajun’s high-quality HD lensing (using Sony’s Cine Alta HDW-F900R), delicate use of music and nuanced perfs creates a small but resonant pearl. Cui’s helming is unobtrusive.

Use of opera music is sparse and not a problem for Western auds. Original title roughly means “The Sound of the Flute.”

A Promise

China

Production

A Beijing Hanlu Film Technology & Culture production, in association with Suzhou Broadcasting System Channel 2, Kunshan City Qiandeng Town Government. (International sales: Hanlu Film, Beijing.) Produced by Qu Changlin, Ding Xiaopeng, Zhang Houhe. Executive producer, Han Lu. Co-producers, Zhan Gang, Tian Xi, Zhang Donggang. Executive in charge of production, Alex Han. Directed by Cui Yi. Screenplay, Yang Xiaodong, Liu Chendi, Zhang Donggang, Wang Ce.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Zhu Jiajun; editor, Tang Xiaoxi; music director, Yang Yang; theme song, Ke Li; art director, Liu Ping; costume designer, Liu Qingfang; sound (Dolby), Chen Hui; artistic consultant, Zhang Zhongnian; Kunqu opera consultant, Cai Shaohua; assistant directors, Shen Zhaoyi, Hao Liang. Reviewed on DVD, Berlin, Nov. 17, 2007. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Tse Kwan-ho, Yin Shuo, Hu Lifang, Lu Yingxing, Zhang Ming, Jin Lin, Ma Jun, Lu Ying, Yan Feng, Liu Jia, Xu Yating, Hong Fuxiang. (Mandarin, Cantonese dialogue)
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