Synthetic Asia finds Western appealLong before the production of “The Promise” began, Chen Kaige says he had originally planned on setting its story in the “3,000 years ago future,” somewhere in Asia.
That’s a good description of his latest film, which at $35 million broke the box-office record in China set by “Titanic.”
The film traces the tragic life of the Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung), who was cursed as a child to lose every man she loves. Years later, she has three men fall in love with her: Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada), a ruthless general; Kunlun (Jang Dong-gun), the general’s slave who has superhuman speed, and Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), an evil warrior who fights Kunlun, who is impersonating Guangming (confused yet?).
One of the curious elements of “The Promise” is that it doesn’t tell specifically when or where the story is set, although the story is told in Chinese.
Images from the film hint that it exists somewhere vaguely in Asia, in some ancient time.
Cherry blossom petals flutter in the wind during the fight scenes, like those in old samurai movies; the costumes and props are excessibly lavish, such as a cast of human hands made out of gold, and the crimson armor which seems to have been inspired from the Phantom of the Opera or the rich colors of the digitally-manipulated landscape as the actors perform acrobatic tricks over the screen. It’s surreal to the point of being theatrical.
But in the end, the film’s cultural references are so generalized that it feels inauthentic.
During a symposium in Japan on “Asian values” last year, Chen Kaige criticzed the casting of Chinese actresses in the Japanese roles in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” saying it fuels the stereotype that all Asians look the same.
Yet his own choice of Pan-Asian casting in “The Promise” (Jang Dong-gun and Hiroyuki Sanada) along with costumes designed by Kimiya Masago (Japanese) and a rendition of a fiddle piece in the background music makes it hard to believe that Chen Kaige takes Orientalism more seriously than did “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
He could certainly get away with it more easily than “Memoirs” did. As an icon of Fifth Generation Cinema ― a genre that symbolizes the spirit of the Cultural Revolution in China, when social realism was still a major part of the scene ― many of Chen Kaige’s films have delved into the struggles of a changing society.
By the end of the film, viewers might think that “The Promise” did delve into those issues, though in a muddled and confused fashion. He flatly admits the film is a “fantasy epic.”
It’s likely the film was simply misunderstood by the organizers of the Golden Globe Awards ― who nominated the film for a Best Foreign Language award ― as a historical saga based in China rather than as a hybrid Asian blockbuster attempt.
There’s no one to blame for this misunderstanding, but the film leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of its viewers once the audience realizes that style rather than content is still the key to Asian cinema’s appeal to the West.
Directed by Chen Kaige
Starring Jang Dong-gun, Cecelia Chung
Running time: 102 minutes
Subtitles: English, Korean
Genre: Fantasy/ Martial arts, Drama
by Park Soo-mee