Tonight I wasted my time on yet another Chinese epic promising bold visuals, acid color palettes and fabulous swordsmanship. This one was called The Promise and is an entry into the genre by Chinese master filmmaker Chen Kaige (who, you may remember, directed the brilliant Farewell, My Concubine.)
I have to learn to talk myself out of going to see films from this spectacular Chinese genre. Their trailers lure me with the promise of visual panache, eye candy and good actors but I am inevitably let down by the film itself, which always lacks substance and more often than not is chock-full of totally ludicrous sentiment and nonsense. I speak to you of Hero (a film I did not appreciate) and House of Flying Daggers (a film I appreciated only slightly better.) The Promise is one of these: a lovely film on the surface, but a film without real characters and a film completely devoid of honest emotion.
The Promise is much worse than both Daggers and Hero, though, because the director, Kaige Chen, doesn't have the will to pull his film through the way Zhang Yimou did with the other two. The costumes for The Promise are gorgeous, stunning things, and the art direction is pretty if boring and lacking wit. Unfortunately, the visual effects are not good at all and though the costumes are lovely, Chen doesn't use them to their advantage. Using a beautiful costume is something Yimou knows how to do brilliantly, and both House of Flying Daggers and Hero use theirs to full effect: the costumes and colors signifying emotion, vacillating loyalties and freedom. The costumes in The Promise signify nothing at all, even though a certain set of "crimson armor" is all anyone talks about for a good forty minutes of the film.
The actors are good enough in The Promise: Hiroyuki Sanada (The White Countess & The Twilight Samurai) especially and the villain is a gorgeous young man by the name of Nicholas Tse, but this film is terrible.
I have debated a lot with other movie lovers about style over substance: when it is okay and when it isn't. It is a rare film where the style is enough to make up for a lack of substance. I, frankly, can't think of one. My aforementioned boredom with both Flying Daggers and Hero is a testament to my preference for substance. I love Douglas Sirk (who doesn't?) but then I think he was still a really good storyteller... and the thing about Sirk for me is that even though everything was so contrived, he was trying to get at something serious: some deep human truths. For me, though, The Promise is this year's Star Wars: Episode III. It's a movie that is completely and totally about style and isn't any good at style. In a word: pointless.