Coming closer even than Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers to resembling the Chinese cover art for an Iron Butterfly album, Chen Kaige's The Promise is psychedelia extremis. Hardly a minute of it passes without a concentrated dose of digital froufrou and lavish cartoon-poetic imagery: floating ocean goddesses, flying swordsmen, Final Fantasy waterscapes, horse manes dyed red. One can only imagine what impact a good dose of 1971-grade LSD might have on a courageous viewer.
The gaudy assault is relentless — in support of an original and half-baked honor/love/mistaken-identity yarn — but it's also wildly campy. The cursed heroine (Cecilia Cheung) is kept prisoner in a giant birdcage that could have been designed for Siegfried & Roy; eye shadow, feather boas, and scarlet capes are de rigueur for the men. More effort has been expended on the knights' Vegas-style ensembles than on a coherent narrative (which, reportedly, has been edited up and down from the Chinese version); the upshot is a new-millennium epic that risks all of its marbles on nonsensical style and none on storytelling — the genre's bread and butter.
Like westerns, Chinese martial-arts movies are a frontier playground for moral crisis; the fighting and supernatural high times were methods of escalating dramatic torque. This was well understood in the Hong Kong salad days of the '70s and '80s, when speed and nerve were the only tools available to make these contraptions fly. The essential craziness of vintage Hong Kong genre films represented their cultural identity: hermetic, jerry-rigged, frantic with panic and elan, made and distributed so quickly that it seemed as if the 1997 reunion with China was a mortal deadline they had to meet. (Newbies should seek out King Hu's A Touch of Zen, the Chinese Ghost Story films, Tsui Hark's Peking Opera Blues, Ching Siu-Tung's Swordsman II, and Wong Kar-Wai's Ashes of Time.)
As it happens, the hovering shadow of the Chinese government over the films (whether they're made in Hong Kong or China) has only inflated the industry's ambitions in the world market. The real Hong Kong martial-arts sagas were so much chintz, electric chutzpah, and low-budget ingenuity that watching them remains a rite of passage to the hungry filmhead. Because they were made for their native populace (and for the world's various Chinatowns), they made no concessions toward taste or Western morality, and obeyed only their own cosmic energies.
But the yuan talks, and since Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came along, lavish, Skittles-colored spectacles have become the most reliable of international McMovies. (The Promise stands, for the moment, as the most expensive Chinese film ever made, but its ubiquitous computerized imagery is outdone by any American cereal commercial.) Chen's story is harebrained but hardly simple, conflating the fates of Cheung's princess (cursed with being loveless by the aforementioned water goddess, for no particular reason), a likable windbag of a general (Hiroyuki Sanada), and his devoted slave (Jang Dong-gun), who can run like the Flash and, without the training usually thought necessary for this sort of thing, defy time and space like a master monk. Who loves who and why is never made clear, and the mano a mano is managed via quick edits, not the actors' movements. No one should expect depth of character here, but clarity of motivation would be helpful, as would acting uncloseted by constant green-screen noise.
The Promise's awkward-Mandarin-speaking cast has been roped in from four linguistically exclusive nations, which has irked Asian audiences more than it will us. But the film has the aura of a bloated, producer-forced international production, not a lean, lizard-quick genre blast. There are lovely moments — the slave rescuing the feather-robed princess on a tether and flying her like a kite, for instance, or the watery wall of time that is transparent but cannot be transgressed — but they're gumdrops in a vat of cheap candy. You can't help but wonder amid the vamping and cheap CGIs how it is that the same fifth-generation filmmaker who made Yellow Earth (1984) and Life on a String (1991) — both of which lent the Chinese film industry a serious but short-lived claim to world attention — could've fallen on such hard times or justified such goofiness to himself.