Judge Joel Pearce says there is an ancient Chinese proverb: "Once you have made your movie, nothing can alter it unless time flows backwards, snow falls in the spring, or the Weinsteins pick up the North American distribution rights."
"Fate works in mysterious ways."—The Sorceress
There's no denying that The Promise is a beautiful production, but it's marred by several absurd decisions that will alienate almost every viewer who tries to get lost in its audacious, colorful world. These problems are exacerbated by approximately 25 minutes of cuts in the North American version, which leaves us with an attractive but incomprehensible mess of a film. Vintage Kaige Chen this is not.
Facts of the Case
As a young girl, orphan Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung, One Night in Mongpok) is given a choice: She can have all the wealth and power in the world, but she will lose any man that she loves. She quickly answers yes, putting in motion a series of events that will shake the foundations of the nation. Many years later, General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada, Ringu) is saved by a slave named Kunlun (Dong-kun Jang, Tae Guk Gi). In order to save the King, Kunlun is sent in the General's place. He kills the king instead, but rescues Qingcheng, who falls in love with him, believing she has fallen in love with the general. The three of them will have to sort out these confusions if they are to stand up to the evil Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse, Dragon Tiger Gate).
If the plot synopsis sounds confusing, don't blame me. I'm just relaying what I can of the muddled, silly story. Watching The Promise is a strange experience, perhaps akin to watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon while high on hallucinogens. It is stylized to the nth degree, far more than any of the swordplay movies that have made it to America in the past few years. That means it is more colorful than Hero, and has wilder battle sequences than House of Flying Daggers. This comes has its benefits and drawbacks. On one hand, The Promise uses some very stunning cinematography, well-implemented CGI, and a crazy color palette. It's never dull to watch, and there are some shots that could be freeze-framed and displayed as art. On the other hand, these eye-popping visuals are simply too much at times. During the opening action scene, I wondered if I had put in Kung-Fu Hustle by accident, the action was so over the top. The costume design is also quite silly. I can't imagine many people who could look at Wuhuan's armor without breaking into giggles. A menacing villain he is not. The rest of the CGI is equally cheesy. I realize it was made for $35 million, but that doesn't change the fact that it looks so painfully fake.
The performances don't help, either. It could be the multicultural nature of the cast, but there seems to be little connection between the actors. All three leads are actors I have enjoyed in other productions, but none deliver their best work here. Dong-kun Jang was very impressive in Tae Guk Gi and Friend, but his versatility and sincerity doesn't play as well here. He and Cecilia Cheung don't have enough screen time to build any real chemistry, which is crucial given the direction of the story. The real disappointment is Hiroyuki Sanada, who was great in Ringu and The Last Samurai, but seems to be doing an impersonation of Clark Gable for Saturday Night Live for this production. For this film to work, we need to forge a personal connection with all three leads, and I never felt that any of them were worth fighting and dying for.
Most of these complaints could simply be due to the fact that the American film is 102 minutes long. The original film is 128 minutes long, meaning that 26 minutes have been snipped out. A lot can happen in 26 minutes of film, enough to completely change characters and stories. It's a plausible explanation for why the story is so confusing for the first half, and why the second half feels so rushed. I know I've made this complaint before, but I'm going to go through it all again for Warner. American audiences can handle films that are over 100 minutes long. We sat through The Lord of the Rings in theaters. Our kids sit through the Harry Potter movies in theaters. By releasing foreign films cut, you don't get more viewers in that wouldn't have watched it at the longer length, though you do alienate the people who are serious about foreign film. Please, for the love of all that is good and pure in the world, stop ruining other people's movies before releasing them in North America. With the awards that The Promise has either won or been nominated for, there must be a good movie in there somewhere. If it doesn't translate because of cultural confusion, some good liner notes could have solved the problem. My theory, though, is that we're missing critical parts of the film.
Either way, Warner hasn't exactly stepped up to create a dazzling package for The Promise. The video transfer is terrible, with grain and artifacts during scenes with lots of movement. It's hard to tell whether this is due to poor mastering, bad source material, or cheap CGI, but I think I will let the blame rest evenly on all three of these elements. To be fair, this production would be a nightmare for a DVD producer. The sound is better, with a strong 5.1 track in the original language. I didn't listen to the whole dub, but it seems to be the usual quality, except for whoever was doing his best Sean Connery impersonation for the General. It's hilarious, though I'm sure not what they were going for. There are some extras on the disc, including a number of additional scenes. To include the cut scenes on the DVD as bonus material adds insult to injury, because it allows us to see what we're missing. I can say with confidence that these scenes wouldn't solve all the problems with the film, but it would help a lot in clearing up the plot. The disc also has a production featurette.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps this is what the American studios want. They want to be able to say: "American audiences aren't interested in foreign films, so we should make it shorter." Then, the films no longer make sense, audiences don't like them, and the studios can then say: "see, American audiences aren't interested in foreign films. It's a good thing we didn't release the longer version." Well, we do like foreign films, and we're importing the DVDs directly from the countries that produce them, because those countries have respect for the films. The American studios can enjoy a larger audience as soon as they realize that.
No matter what Warner had done with this package, The Promise isn't the classic that we hoped for. It's a bloated, overproduced production with cheesy acting and CGI. To have it sliced up like this just makes it a confusing, bloated, overproduced production with cheesy acting and CGI. It has some breathtakingly beautiful moments, but not enough to make it worthwhile. This disc is only recommended as a rental.
Warner, it's been a long time since I've taken issue with one of your discs. Don't let it happen again.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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