After stealing a loaf of bread from a dead soldier’s hands, motherless young Qingcheng encounters the goddess Manshen (Chen Hong), who offers her a proposition: in exchange for unparalleled beauty and wealth, the girl must agree to lose every man she ever loves. Although it’s the type of dreadful pact only Faust would accept, Qingcheng nonetheless agrees, thus guaranteeing an unhappy destiny involving the three men—evil Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), mighty General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada), and Guangming’s loyal slave Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun)—whose lives she touches.
One of the most expensive productions in Chinese history, Chen Kaige’s The Promise finds the former Palm d’Or winner following up 2002’s crowd-pleasing melodrama Together with another middle-of-the-road effort, utilizing every special effect the yuan can buy and pilfering as many elements from House of Flying Daggers as copyrights will permit to concoct his very own martial arts-infused romantic epic. Obsessed with avian motifs, falling petals, and super-slow-motion, Chen’s fantasy adventure occasionally happens upon a breathtakingly hyper-real image (Qingcheng encased in a golden birdcage, for example). Yet with each frame containing at least a smidgen of sub-par digital augmentation, the film generally fails to incorporate its hilariously over-the-top human actors with its unnatural CGI. The Promise’s shaky computerized craftsmanship, however, is nothing compared to the emotionally empty, physics-defying set pieces for which such effects are used, the unintentionally riotous pièce de résistance being an early sequence that finds Kunlun outrunning, on all fours, a herd of rampaging bulls who appear to exist on a different spatial plane than the speedy slave.
As the film’s tepid, uninvolving romance and ludicrous mythology unfold, Kunlun turns out to hail from the Land of Snow, home to a now-extinct race of supernatural beings whose Sonic the Hedgehog-style swiftness allowed them to reverse the progress of time. When matched with his undying love for the radiant Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung), Kunlun’s flipping, twirling, anti-gravity powers eventually let him save his soulmate from her seemingly unalterable lovelorn fate, thereby demonstrating that with enough conviction and passion, one can alter his or her life’s course. It’s an outlook that hopefully also holds true for Chen himself, a once-promising director who, with the trivial and silly The Promise, seems to be continuing down an ill-advised path toward mainstream mediocrity.