Equal parts vid game and wuxia kitsch, Chen Kaige's martial-arts fantasia has Crouching Tiger designs and Xena delivery. At various points, I was unclear if I was watching a commercial for wind-blown silk linens or hair products, or maybe a rejected beta-test version of some old Nintendo module, or possibly even just handicam-captured New Zealand backdrops stolen from a screening of Lord of the Rings. Even in his biggest hit, 1993's Farewell, My Concubine, Chen's impulses toward eye candy and heartstring pulling trumped plot and character. The Promise plays out less like a movie than a series of screen savers: skies endlessly swirling with pink cherry-tree petals and snow; massive plumed armies wearing enough white feathers to put all the showgirls in Vegas out of work; a Speedy Gonzalez peasant towing a bird-costume- wearing princess in the air like a kite; and a sky-swimming goddess with hair and robes flowing like water. (Although she actually proves useful for delivering periodic exposition, since Chen gives us only a series of climaxes, finales, captures, and escapes, with nothing to connect them.)
At Cannes '05, nobody could follow the story, which somehow involves a beautiful princess fated to be loveless; a brave peasant with high-speed CG legs; a somewhat buffoonish general who loves the princess and takes the peasant as his servant (romantic triangle alert!); a flying veiled assassin who resembles a Cure fan in mid-'80s goth regalia; and a gayish evil duke with eyebrows plucked like a Liza impersonator. So Harvey Weinstein naturally got out the scissors, but he and Chen couldn't come to terms, and now poor Warner Independent gets stuck with the results.
The Promise finally represents an unmanageable collision between magic and illogic. (We're perfectly willing to accept the magical wuxia realm of Crouching Tiger when the plot makes sense.) This is a film that espouses the power of fate, and then decides, "Destiny lies in our own hands." We're told, "You cannot penetrate the wall of time," but then, sorry, it turns out that if you run fast enough, time can be reversed and anything's possible. Chen wants it both ways, and his two-hour cut of The Promise was a huge hit in China. (It's now 20 minutes shorter, but no clearer.) When American viewers hear, "Go and find your heart's desire," that's when it's time to sneak into the theater showing Stick It next door.