THE PROMISE — ** — Jang Dong-Kun, Cecilia Cheung, Hiroyuki Sanada; in Mandarin, with English subtitles; rated PG-13 (violence, brief gore, brief sex, brief partial nudity).
Old-fashioned romance and newfangled digital filmmaking effects collide in “The Promise,” perhaps the least-satisfying of the many martial-arts/costume dramas that have followed in the wake of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
The film was reportedly the most expensive production in China’s history, which is surprising, since in many respects it looks so chintzy. In fact, the cartoony digital effects recall those from the winningly goofy films of Stephen Chow, such as last year’s “Kung-Fu Hustle.” Only here they’re expected to be taken seriously.
Based on a legend, this romantic fantasy follows Kunlun (Korean star Jang Dong-Kun), a slave for the forces of the tyrannical General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada). When the general is wounded in battle, he asks his servant to don his armor and protect the emperor.
Instead, however, Kunlun slays the emperor in order to save the life of the beautiful concubine Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung). He also falls in love with Qingcheng, though she’s been cursed to lose every man she loves and is reluctant to give her heart to her rescuer.
Further complicating matters is a confusion of identities. Qingcheng believes it was the general, not Kunlun, who saved her, something that a rival warlord, Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), is more than willing to exploit.
It’s hard to believe something so muddled and confusing could have come from “Farewell, My Concubine” filmmaker Chen Kaige. But despite the spectacular costume and production design, he’s clearly out of his element here. Neither the action nor the drama has much impact. And his mixed-Asian cast — Cheung is the only Hong Kong veteran of the three leads — seems pretty out of sorts.
“The Promise” is rated PG-13 for scenes of martial-arts violence (including hand-to-hand combat, sword fighting, arrow fire and some violence against women), some brief gore, a brief sex scene, and brief glimpses of partial female nudity. Running time: 102 minutes