Sunday afternoon the 7th, we went to the Downer Theatre to see "The Promise,"("Wu ji") a beautifully staged and photographed Chinese fairy tale. While not quite so gorgeous as "Hero", there is no doubt in my mind that at the present time, the Chinese are the leaders in presenting cinematic beauty.
The story is set in a pre-mythic China. The Middle Kingdom is relatively small, and surrounded by "barbarians", and seems to consist mainly of a single palace/city made up of concentric rings. As the story opens, a poor orphan girl wanders over a battlefield, scavenging the dead soldier's belongings for any food. She encounters a noble boy, who berates her for having robbed the dead, and extorts a promise from her that she will be his slave in return for food. She agrees, then knocks him down, takes the food, and runs off. Shortly, she encounters the "goddess" Manchen, who offers her a bargain: she will have wealth, beauty and fame on the condition that she will loose every man she ever loves. This will be her fate, unless snow falls in the springtime, the dead live again, and time turns backward. The girl agrees.
Cut to twenty years later. The girl, known as Qingcheng (Cecelia Cheung), has grown into a famous beauty, and become concubine of the King. The King's great general, Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) is on the western frontier fighting off a barbarian incursion, which he does with the inadvertent help of the slave Kunlun (Dong-Kun Jang). Kunlun is one of those fairy tale characters out of Hans Christian Andersen, or perhaps "The Five Chinese Brothers." He is immensely strong and can run faster than a fast horse, even with another man on his back. Nevertheless, he is so simple and humble that when his former master is killed, he is quite content to be "rewarded" by a position as a slave for a richer master, General Guangming.
Guangming is interrupted in his victory celebration by news that the wicked Duke of the North, Wuhuan, (Nicholas Tse) has rebelled against the King and invested the Imperial City, and Guangming must come to the rescue. On the way, he is ambushed and wounded by Wuhuan's assassin, Snow Wolf (Ye Liu), who is driven off by Kunlun. Unable to ride, Guangming commands Kunlun to don the general's famous (and identity-disguising) Crimson Armor, and ride to the King's rescue in his place. The complications that ensue drive the complicated, sad, and tragic plot. We enjoyed the movie very much and found no flaws in it.
The beauty of the production extends to its cast. Notably, the most beautiful actors are some of the men: Dong-Kun Jang as Kunlun is one of the most nobly handsome men I've ever seen, and Nicholas Tse as Wuhuan looks as much like an anime bad boy as is humanly possible. Wuhuan is also one of the "best" villains I've come across in a long time. Besides being wickedly handsome, he's also a snappy dresser, an effective and stylish fighter, a sublime plotter, and has a wicked sense of humor.
Highly reccomended. In Chinese, with subtitles. Too subtle and intense for young children, including the rather bloody final fight scene, and the flashback wherein Snow Wolf becomes the wearer of the Black Cloak.