Chen Kaige's "The Promise," China's official Oscar entry, is lots of things all at once: an exquisite fairy tale, a glorious martial arts fantasy, a romantic epic of exceptional emotional resonance and a consideration of the paradoxical nature of destiny, in which Chen suggests that the workings of fate are no absolution for personal responsibility. Chen's masterful, deeply perceptive direction of his superb cast is equaled by the film's luminous cinematography, rich yet spare and stylized production and costume design, and rousing score. "The Promise," which has also been known as "Master of the Crimson Armor," looks to be a strong contender.
"The Promise" is also one of the most beautiful films imaginable, a briskly paced adventure of the utmost cinematic effect. In short, it's a knockout that works on many levels. Although the Weinstein Co. ultimately withdrew from distributing the film, Harvey Weinstein's role in clarifying the film's complex plot for Western audiences has been publicly acknowledged; the film, which has excellent subtitles, runs a satisfying 103 minutes, which is 18 minutes shorter than the version released to great success in China.
At its heart is the eternal triangle, with an echo of "Cyrano de Bergerac" and Kurosawa's "Kagemusha." The delicate beauty Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung) falls in love with the great military leader General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada), believing it is he who dared to kill an emperor in order to save her life. But her savior was actually the general's slave, Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun), his identity hidden by the mask of the then-wounded military leader's magnificent golden headdress and crimson armor.
Every general requires a worthy adversary, and Guangming's is the endlessly wily, cruel and effete Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), whose personal assassin Snow Wolf (Liu Ye) can run faster than the wind. Wuhuan for his own reasons also covets Qingcheng and at one point captures and imprisons her in an immense golden cage, covering her with a whitefeathered cape. In one of the film's countless breathtaking sequences, Kunlun, also in love with Qingcheng -- naturally -- rescues her, and he flies through the sky with Qingcheng tied to him by rope, her feathered cape functioning as wings.
None of these four people is quite what he or she seems to each other, and the film's greatest accomplishment is how deftly Chen and his co-writer Zhang Tan manage to reveal a lot of interconnected back story about each of the five principals bit by bit to deepen ever so gradually a picture with surreal and lively martial arts action.
As time goes by the characters and their fates attain a Shakespearean grandeur and accrue the complexity of the key figures of Chen's landmark, Oscar-nominated "Farewell, My Concubine."
The film's title refers to a promise that Qingcheng broke in childhood that reverberates throughout the picture to assert that what counts in life above all else is honor.
Intentionally or otherwise, Chen honors the memory of the late, great King Hu in expressing a profound spirituality through the martial arts.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Standard martial arts violence, too intense for younger children.
A Moonstone Entertainment presentation of a Beijing 21st Century Shengkai-China Film Group-Capgen Investment Group-Moonstone Productions presentation. Director Chen Kaige. Producers Chen Hong, Han San Ping, Etchie Stroh. Executive producers Chen Hong, Yang Pu Ting, Hu Lan and Zhang Tan. Screenplay by Chen Kaige and Zhang Tan; from a story by Chen Kaige. Cinematographer Peter Pau. Music Klaus Bedelt. Costumes Kimiya Masago and Tim Yip. Production designer Tim Yip. Art directors Yang Baigui, Yang Gang. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
Exclusively at the Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas for one week, screening at 11:30 a.m. only, 7907 Beverly Blvd. (at Fairfax Avenue), (323) 655-4010.