the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Promise

I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

Once deemed one of China’s most luminary artists, filmmaker Chen Kaige (the exquisite Farewell my Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin) has had a series of critical and popular missteps in recent years. In what could be an attempt to shore up his reputation, Kaige has returned to the kind of filmmaking that made him famous—the epic. Unfortunately, his latest film, The Promise, only seems to solidify everyone’s worst fears.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that The Promise was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film in 2005 (it takes these things a while it make it to our shores), or that it is the most expensive film China has ever bankrolled. What sounds good on paper fails miserably on the screen.

The Promise is the story of a young waif, Qingcheng, who makes a deal with a sorceress: she can henceforth live a life of luxury, but in exchange true love will remain forever beyond her reach and all the men she falls for will die. The deal is struck, but what seemed like a perfect arrangement to a hungry child ends up haunting the love-starved adult. This is especially true once Qingcheng’s life is saved by Kunlun, a slave to the great General Guangming, whom Qingcheng mistakenly believes is her rescuer. Kunlun himself is shrouded in mystery, ignorant of his origins and possessing supernatural abilities. When an evil Duke threatens them all, free will and fate will be put to the ultimate test.

The plot appears to be an engaging, if somewhat convoluted, Chinese fairy tale. But Kaige, in his effort to return to the top, decided to forgo traditional storytelling and tackle the mystical martial art genre of wuxia films (e.g.: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, House of Flying Daggers and most recently, Curse of the Golden Flower), so influential in Chinese cinema today. The result, unfortunately, is an artistic disaster.

Attempting to best his wuxia predecessors, Kiage didn’t rely on wirework stunts alone (clumsy and almost wholly ungraceful as they are in this film, nothing like the liquid poetry of Yimou Zhang’s films), but decided to inject lavish amounts of computer-generated effects. Too bad the CGI is so amateurish as to be almost laughable. The Promise, ultimately, is a flimsy story held together with the cheapest of smoke and mirrors and represents not a return to greatness for Chen Kiage, but a spectacular embarrassment.

The Promise is an over-wrought and laughably goofy film, an empty and pale imitation of the far better films that have gone on before it.

To read the full review, click here.


Blogger Grinth said...

Not to be nit picky but wouldn't it be more accurate to describe Yimou Zhang not as predecessor but student of Kaige?

If memory serves me correctly (and it may not be), Yimou got his start and learned the ropes by serving as cinematographer for Kaige before he went on to do his own films.

In my mind Yellow Earth is still one of Kaige's most enthralling works, but then again I also feel Yimou's best work occured back with 'Raise the Red Latern' and 'Judo' (being my personal favorite).

12:55 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Your memory does not fail you. Zhang did indeed get his start with Kaige. But I was not trying to chart Zhang's career progress, but to set him apart for his wuxia films specifically. If anything, this is a case of the student rising above his master and the master failing when attempting to turn the tables and immitate the student.

5:42 AM  
Blogger Grinth said...

I can see that, like i said I was being nit picky hehe.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...


12:43 PM  
Blogger Grinth said...

I'm working on it =)

6:17 PM  

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