Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. - Eleanor Roosevelt

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Another Chinese movie review.

It is so hard to believe that the same guy who directed such films as Temptress Moon and Farewell, My Concubine is the same guy who wrote and directed The Promise.

Kaige Chen is a Chinese director whose name appears right up there with fellow Chinese greats as Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar Wai. His works are usually dark and serious in plot, highlighting China's rich history through interesting stories and characters. Temptress Moon is a disturbing film banned in China itself for its risque subject matter of dealing with child servants getting addicted to opium, while others use it to poison their masters. Farewell, my Concubine is the story of two orphans and friends who go through the rigid training of the Peking/Beijing opera, and remain friends through China's entire history of the twentieth century, all with a woman coming between them.

The Promise is far from the movies I mentioned above.

It is the supernatural tale of a woman told her fortune by a goddess during her childhood. Her fortune is to grow up to have all the riches in the world (the kid is starving as she is being told this)and to possess great beauty... the catch? Any man she loves, she will lose. The kid agrees to the terms, and it's mostly the pangs of hunger doing the deciding. As with all fairytale spells and fortunes, you can change the outcome, but only if the near impossible is achieved-- time going backwards. And so, the Disney show begins with slaves running on all fours against a stampede of bulls, and surreal things happening left and right that make someone not interested in such antics (someone like me) roll their eyes.

The truth is The Promise has very little to elevate itself from being a Disney magic fairytale, with only a slightly more adult feel... that being achieved only through a brief scene where Princess Qingcheng (the kid who's told she's gonna lose any man she loves, all grown up) and General Guangming (the man she loves) are getting it on. The pace of the film is that of a Disney movie... everything about it screams Disney to me, and though that's not really an issue given Disney's aim to entertain adults and kids alike with their latest productions-- and perhaps it's lost in translation-- but I'm missing the adult, quirky humor I've come to love in Disney movies.

To add to the fantasy aspect of this film, there are places in this surreal world named cheesy things like "Land of Snow" and characters named Snow Wolf. The cinematography is at times stunning, but there are sequences where it is just hokey, and choppy. The music swells at any little event, like it's the grand finale, when even the ending is hardly worthy of such passionate music. The strangest thing about this film, I find, is the cast. Two are not Chinese, and actually had to learn Mandarin Chinese in order to do the film. The actor who plays the slave Kunlun is a Korean actor, and the actor who plays General Guangming is Japanese. Just strange strange stuff, but kind of cool, really.

But no worries... there is something good about Kaige Chen making this film that is so different from his usual fare. Aside from the quality of the end product, it's good to see a director try something entirely new. The Promise is truly something new for Kaige Chen. Maybe his next new project will be better.

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