Friday, May 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

A pretty, but problematic, "Promise"

Seattle Times movie critic

In recent years, the audience for martial-arts epics has expanded from genre fans to more general filmgoers who appreciate the sweep and beauty of such works as Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers." Chen Kaige's "The Promise," compared with those films, is a disappointment; perhaps this one is strictly for the martial-arts obsessed.

Movie review 2 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Promise," with Hiroyuki Sanada, Jang Dong-Gun, Cecilia Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Liu Ye, Chen Hong. Directed by Chen Kaige, from a screenplay by Chen Kaige and Zhang Tan. 103 minutes. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Rated PG-13 for stylized violence and martial-arts action, and some sexual content. Several theaters.

Sharing a cinematographer (Peter Pau) and costume designer (Tim Yip) with "Crouching Tiger," "The Promise" invites comparison to Lee's film, and sometimes it holds up. Some of the visuals are lovely — particularly the repeated theme of a cherry-blossom tree, its petals swirling in the wind like a flurry of pale-pink snow — and the colors are vivid. Cecilia Cheung, as Princess Qingcheng, makes an appealing heroine; she's very young, with a slinky, playful smile.

But the characters never really register in this story of a princess and her three suitors — a duke, a military man and a slave — set in the distant past in the Imperial City. Rather, the film feels like a series of set pieces, none quite breathtaking enough to make up for the story's deficiencies. ("House of Flying Daggers," in particular, often feels that way, too — but each set piece is so exquisite, you don't want it to end.)

The battle scenes, all too obviously aided by computers, often look a bit cartoony; and the fight action is so sped-up, the peril never seems real. Chen, whose last film was the sweet father-and-son tale "Together," frequently seems to forget here how powerful a moment of slowness can be.

"The Promise" is an ambitious work, and it's not entirely fair to condemn it by comparison (most adventure films wouldn't shine next to "Crouching Tiger" or "House of Flying Daggers"). But it treads familiar territory, with a step less delicate than its predecessors.

Chen's strength seems to be more with character-driven stories; here's hoping that his next film returns to more comfortable ground.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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