In ancient China, a poverty-stricken little orphan named Qing-Qing makes a bargain with the Goddess Manshen (Chen Hong). She will grow up to have beauty and wealth, but lose every man that ever falls in love with her “until time flows backwards, winter changes to spring and the dead come back to life.” Many years later, General Guanming (Hiroyuki Sanada), the master of armour, wins a spectacular victory in battle, thanks largely to heroic slave, Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun), who can run with superhuman speed. On the way home, Guanming encounters Goddess Manshen, who predicts the master of armour will kill the Emperor (Chen Qian) and steal his bride, “the beauty of all beauties”, Princess Qing-Qing (Cecilia Cheung). This will spell his doom, so Guanming tries to cheat fate by sending Kunlun in his place, disguised in the general’s distinctive gold mask and crimson armour.
Kunlun arrives to find the Forbidden City besieged by the invincible Wuhong (Nicholas Tse). Qing-Qing successfully mesmerizes ten-thousand soldiers with a seductive striptease atop the palace roof, but so incenses the Emperor he tries to kill her. Lovestruck and unable to recognise the Emperor, Kunlun swiftly kills the assailant and rescues Qing-Qing, who falls in love with the masked warrior… thinking he is Guanming. The smitten general takes advantage of her ignorance and with Kunlun’s selfless aid, they settle down in conjugal bliss. Super-powered assassin, Snow Wolf (Liu Ye) teaches Kunlun the secrets of time-travel, through which the latter learns of his slaughtered tribe from the Land of Snow. Meanwhile, Wuhong sets a trap so he may take Qing-Qing for himself. For it seems they share a past that involves a broken promise…
After making his disastrous English language debut with would-be erotic thriller Killing Me Softly (2002), master director Chen Kaige needed a world-class hit. His fellow Asian auteurs, Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou scored big box-office and critical kudos with wu xia movies, so Kaige set out to prove he could deliver eye-candy and high-flying wire fu better than anyone. He chose to adapt “The K’un-lun Slave”, a fairytale romance written by P’ei Hsing at the time of the Tang Dynasty, and assembled a starry international cast, lavish costumes and digital effects and a multi-million dollar budget that allegedly surpassed that of Hero (2003). The Promise did blockbuster business across Mainland China and, despite largely negative reviews from the western press, was submitted for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Sadly, the film was purchased by the Weinstein brothers, who removed twenty minutes, re-titled it: Master of the Crimson Armour, and refused to release it for two and a half years, whereupon it became one of the most unjustly maligned movies on the web.
Let’s redress the balance. The Promise is flawed, but ambitious and often beautiful. It’s an exquisite jewel of a movie that positively gleams off the screen. The Weinsteins’ attempt to market it as an historical martial arts epic displays a profound misunderstanding of what this movie is all about. The story is structured around a cycle of broken promises, innocent deceptions and in some cases, outright lies. Lies that cause people to lose faith in the world, leaving them - as Wuhong remarks - “neither trusting nor to be trusted.” It takes a selfless hero to set things right and we follow Kunlun as he attempts to do just that.
The Promise is foremost a fairytale. Lush, dreamy visuals evoke the opulence of Chinese fantasy: little Qing-Qing’s first encounter with Goddess Manshen, her hair floating eerily in mid-air; the princess imprisoned in a giant birdcage until super-speedy Kunlun tows her to freedom across an azure sky; a race across time and space where ice palaces and frozen trees evoke the Land of Snow. Costumes, special effects and sets, both real and computer generated, are staggering in their grandeur, competing with the epic scenery. Some western viewers expressed disdain over the fanciful costumes and effects, but the fact remains Asian cinema prefers eye-catching, impressionistic visuals over realistic ones. If you don’t dig that, you’re watching the wrong genre.
Working with genius cinematographer Peter Pau, Kaige weaves his camera like a master. Action scenes like the fight in a room full of revolving doors, or Kunlun fleeing a buffalo stampede and raining arrows are as thrilling as anything in Spider-Man (2002). Yet he hasn’t lost his skill with actors and draws atypical characterizations from a quartet of Asian superstars. Korean lead Jan Dong-Gun moves as Kunlun, who goes from grunting slave treated worse than a dog, to a tragic, noble spirit via his Cyrano De Bergerac-like, anonymous courtship of Qing-Qing. It is Kunlun who provides the film’s mantra: though life can be cruel - “you must not die. You must go on living.”
Hiroyuki Sanada, the Tom Cruise of Japan, swaggers magnificently and shows off his martial arts prowess, swinging an oversized, golden bolas in battle. His relationship with Kunlun is interesting. A strained friendship with mutual dependency and occasional disdain. Cantopop heartthrob (and Cecilia Cheung’s real-life husband), Nicholas Tse normally plays stoic heroes. Cast against type he excels as slimy, yet tortured and pitiable Wuhong. Cecilia Cheung, currently Hong Kong’s biggest box-office draw and better known as a comedic actress, makes a show-stopping entrance atop the imperial palace. Casting off one multicoloured veil after another to seduce an entire army. Princess Qing-Qing is able to seduce any man just by stroking his sword (ooh-err). Needless to say Cheung looks stunning in every scene. More crucially she shows a real skill for drama, as in the moment Qing-Qing lifts the golden mask to reveal Guanming’s face and somehow senses he isn’t the man she fell for. Qing-Qing is selfish and capricious, but often insightful about human nature. The desire she provokes in men reveals the truth about themselves. Like many fairytales, The Promise deals in archetypes. Indeed, the casting of Korean, Japanese and Chinese leads is perhaps symbolic of the relationship between their respective nations.
After an exhilarating first two thirds, the film crumbles amidst an interminable court trial. A dramatically inert finale piles on the revelations, but we’re left with three people moaning at each other while they bleed to death. At least the last scene conjures some wistful, fairytale magic, as two characters soar into outer space, accompanied by Klaus Badelt’s achingly lovely score. Anyone eager to check out this winning fantasy should ignore the region 1 release in favour of the region 3 special edition, which is a thing of beauty.