Orphaned and starving, a little girl stumbles on a dead soldier, one of multiple bodies in a battlefield. Rather than showing any sense of horror, the desperate child girl steals a bun from his pocket. But her escape from the corpse-strewn field is stopped by a boy in a helmet with a bird adornment; when he insists that she “promise to be my slave,” she agrees, then uses his own helmet as a weapon against him (“I trusted you,” he whines), ensuring her escape, with that dearly won bun in grubby hand.
During these first moments of Chen Kaige’s elaborate wuxha romance, The Promise (Wu ji), the basic themes are established: promises will be made and broken, relationships will be determined by cruel duplicities and fantastic loyalties. And always, always, appearances deceive. All of this is carved into a sort of stone when the girl, Qingcheng, is discovered by the goddess Manshen (Chen Hong), who offers her a magical means of survival: she will thrive, be a “beauty of beauties,” and attain great wealth and status, but in return she will lose every man she loves. The girl spends a moment or so pondering this fate and takes the deal. “Remember Qingcheng,” the goddess cautions as the child leaves her, “You made your own choice.”
Wouldn’t you know, Qingcheng will have a difficult lesson to learn. But first, she lives brilliantly, if not especially happily. Grown up to be a princess (and played by the exquisite Cecilia Cheung), she lives in splendor with the evil duke Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), longing for a way out. Little does she know that a very complicated rescue will befall her, orchestrated by two men, the daunting General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his determinedly loyal slave Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun), who happens as well to be the fastest human alive.
Kunlun demonstrates this remarkable gift during his first appearance, when he and a small band of fellows are fighting overwhelming odds: Kunlun literally and quite crazily outruns a herd of bulls, slipping up and down canyon walls, legs churning, dust billowing. The general is impressed by the young man’s powers, and takes him as his servant. Why does Kunlun agree to this seemingly unbalanced agreement? “If I serve you,” he explains, “I get to eat every day.” Well and good, says Guangming, but “No more kneeling. I want you to run for me.” He understands, at some level anyway, the value of this particular servant.
A first mission involves saving Guangming from a mysterious figure in the forest, who recognizes Kunlun’s talent: “You move fast,” notes the hooded one, in fact an undead assassin, Snow Wolf (Liu Yeh), who understates considerably. “Are you from the Land of Snow?” asks the assassin. Indeed he is, and Kunlun’s subplot will take him back to his home, in an effort to move so fast that he can turn back time, and perhaps save his village from massacre by the evil duke’s police (or, as the prophecy has it, he might “make the dead come to life”).
Backstories like this one don’t quite explain present nuttiness, but they do give it a context, and The Promise is prone to produce and then elaborate on these without worrying too much about sense. The logic here is grandly mythic, meaning that super-powered freaks and self-delusional sorts run rampant, with delightful visual effects standing in for narrative coherence. As the several backstories begin to intersect in ways that are, in fact, not so predictable, the film gathers up its own energy, then gallops ahead, most often on the back of ultraspeedy Kunlun (who repeatedly slings Guangming or Qingcheng over his shoulders and takes off, outmaneuvering any number of opponents on large fast horses).
The primary “fast one” in the film concerns Kunlun’s rescue of Qingcheng from that nasty duke, which occurs early on. At the time, he’s wearing Guangming’s helmet and armor, and so she mistakes him for the General, and promptly falls in love with him (the fact that this happens on a cliff, as they face a slew of the duke’s forces, is not without meaning: both hero and heroine are stepping off into some delightful delirium in their love story, apparently willfully). The servant remains utterly loyal to his master (no kneeling, just lots of running), even as he too loves the princess. Guangming, for his part, also loves Qingcheng, and takes credit for the rescue in order to have he love him back. All this as that fluttery goddess occasionally touches down to comment on the foibles of these perpetually deceptive humans.
There’s a lesson here, having to do with the seductions of wealth and power versus the purities of true love, but the film is less concerned with teaching it than laying out all the pieces and letting them fly. While many viewers have pointed out the similarities between Kaige’s film and recent work by Zhang Yimou (Hero or House of Flying Daggers), big, beautiful wuxha sagas working mythologies every which-way, designed for Western consumption. And indeed, this film was the most expensive in Chinese history, made for some $35 million (a paltry sum by, say, Mission: Impossible standards, the latest cost $185 million) and China’s nomination for the 2006 Best Foreign Language Film Golden Globe.
The Promise is buoyed by its aesthetic excesses: ferocious makeup and costumes (including an all-feathers-all-the-time getup that leaves flitting remnants as Kunlan makes yet another run and the cape turns to wings), bizarre and cartoony stunts, lunatic sets (Qingcheng is imprisoned briefly in a golden birdcage), and cryptic-if-prosaic life lessons (noting that there’s a difference between running and fleeing, the also-speedy Snow Wolf advises, “Real speed is imperceptible”). As these extravagances pile on, any narrative sense-making begins to seem irrelevant, or at least mundane. A departure for Kaige, it is also great good deranged fun.