Monday, March 5, 2007

Movie Chat: The Promise

The Promise

When it comes to wuxia, I'm not even a dabbler. For the most part, my experience with this kind of movie has been through the "prestige" wuxia flicks. Though I've also seen Once Upon a Time in China, Iron Monkey, and a couple others whose names escape me at the moment, I've responded more to relatively "mainstream" (even middlebrow) pleasures of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and The House of Flying Daggers.

I'm laying this out, because I want to put my comments on The Promise in their proper context. I'm not an expert, so I have no real idea how it fits into the genre historically or how it compares with, say, The House of Flying Daggers in terms of fidelity to wuxia's tropes and conventions.

So, my take on Crouching Tiger was that it's wuxia with all the rough edges smoothed away. Hero is wuxia used for large scale, allegorical political pageantry. And The House of Flying Daggers is wuxia as heady, heightened pop opera.

The Promise, on the other hand, strikes me as being closer to a "generic" wuxia - amped up. It's big, the effects are over-the-top, and the plot moves along with a straightforward, unapologetic arbitrariness. There's nothing in the movie that even approaches a mundane, baseline moment to gauge the high-flying fantasy against. And, related to that, there's hardly any attempt to build up these characters or get the audience to care about them in a conventional way. More than any of the other wuxia pictures I've seen, The Promise operates on a mythic level.

In a way it reminds me of Frank Miller's sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, where he tries to fit in everything that he loves about super-hero comics, even the stuff that most "prestige" super-hero books leave out - the garish circus-like atmosphere, the exaggerated but ungrounded moral struggles, loads of both too meaningful and purposeless action. The Promise has this kind of vibe: as if the filmmakers weren't going to let a proper sense of scale get in their way.

As pretty as The Promise looks, I didn't get the sense that it was trying to impress me with its seriousness. And even its prettiness isn't fussed over. Although this means that the CGI isn't as seamless as it is in Hero, it's also looser - more like a cartoon and less like Ran-lite.

All of which is kind of prelude to say that I enjoyed watching it quite a bit, and I'm a little surprised at how badly it was reviewed by film critics. I mean, I've certainly seen deeper action/adventure movies and more emotionally engaging action/adventure movies, but The Promise looks great, it moves quickly, the performances are all likable, and the set pieces are inventive and exciting. Were people let down because this movie didn't have the intellectual/aesthetic rigor of Hero or the old fashioned movie romance of Crouching Tiger? (I find it inexplicable that The Promise got panned, when Kung Fu Hustle received so many rave reviews.) Was there a secret critics meeting where they decided that they were going to be sourpusses when it came to The Promise?

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