Film

The Promise (Wu ji) (2005)

Cynthia Fuchs

There's a lesson here, about the seductions of wealth 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.

The Promise (Wu ji)

Director: Chen Kaige
Cast: Hiroyuki Sanada, Jang Dong-Gun, Cecilia Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Liu Ye
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Warner Independent Pictures
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2006-05-05 (Limited release)
Trailer

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.

6

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image