Once upon a time, the People's Republic of China turned obedience into a culture. So after a while a group of young filmmakers found ways to create luscious-looking films that still managed to eke out an idea or two about the state of things (i.e., things about the state). Now China guzzles oil faster than the United States of Petroleum does, and Chinese filmmakers guzzle bigger budgets with an almost Hollywoodesque insouciance.
Chen Kaige's The Promise, the most expensive film ever made in China (so far), would seem to take its inspiration from Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The action, the mythology, the epic scope, the people literally walking on air: Jackie Chan notwithstanding, this has become the mainstay of Big Asian Cinema. But Chen also owes a little something to pioneer special effects-meister Ray Harryhausen, whose stop-motion techniques gave us such dandies as Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans.
Here's the simple version of Chen's story. A rich man sends his servant in disguise as himself to rescue a captive woman. The servant succeeds, and the woman falls in love with him. When the rich man reclaims his identity, he also claims to have been her liberator. Complications ensue, and everybody dies.
This, of course, is Shakespeare, writ small and in Chinese, and it would have been sufficient to service an entertaining melodrama. But Chen sets his movie in a mythical ancient time, where "gods and man live side by side," and where the way of the world is war, treason, distrust and dishonor, all manipulated by gods who come to earth and impose a series of fates worse than death upon their suffering mortal subjects. (The gods in Harryhausen's films were notoriously capricious and meddlesome.)
So the larger version of the story goes like this. In a world of extremes between the haves and the have-nots, a hungry little boy steals food from a corpse, and a hungry girl named Qingcheng steals the food from the trusting little boy, then drops it in the water and cries at her loss. A goddess descends, gives her back the food, and promises her a beautiful life, with one catch: Every man she loves, she will lose.
The girl grows up to become a princess/concubine, tormented by a brutal king. That's why the great warrior Guangming ... whose scarlet army of 3,000 defeats an invading hoard of 20,000, and who's wounded by an assassin sent to kill him ... gives his slave Kunlun his armor and tells him to go save Qingcheng.
He also tells him not to kill the king. But Kunlun arrives just as the king is about to kill Qingcheng, leaving Kunlun only one way to save her. This sets up Qingcheng's love for Kunlun ... whom she naturally thinks is Guangming ... and also the effort by the despotic young ruler Wuhuan to kill the man who killed the king. It builds to a Dickensian climax where one man prepares to die to save another. Oh, and did I mention that Kunlun, unbeknownst to him, is an orphan from the Land of Snow, a place that bestows magical powers upon him?
The action ... and there's lots of it, especially high-flying swordplay ... unfolds in a milieu that seems at once ancient and otherworldly, and surpassing the super-size Crayola box in its palette of colors. In Crouching Tiger, Lee put his actors on ropes to make them fly. Chen probably did some of that as well. But he also uses Matrix-like digital animation, and sometimes it resembles primitive Harryhausen effects. A stampede of cattle is almost risible in its transparency ... the dinosaurs in Peter Jackson's King Kong looked more real ... and the occasionally jerky movements of the digitalized actors can't simply be explained away by the movie's fantasy element.
Of course, none of that would matter if the drama worked, and if the characters were anything more than the sum of their costumes. In case you miss the themes, don't worry ... the goddess who stirred things up in the first place will return with a summary for the quiz. (Fate can change, life renews itself, love triumphs over all.) Once upon a time, Chen Kaige made Yellow Earth, a film about the masses. Now, he only makes movies for them. In Mandarin, with subtitles.