Director of Historical Epics Turns His Opulent Vision Into Mythic Action
“One thing is very clear,” Chen Kaige says over the phone. “I want the audience to see the film as if they’re a baby seeing for the first time this new and beautiful and brutal world.” The Chinese director could never be accused of setting small goals. Famous for ravishing art-house hits such as Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon, Chen aims for mainstream success with his new mythic action flick The Promise, a multiplex fantasy nevertheless hanging from a heavy thesis of “destiny, love, and freedom.”
Chen’s voice is deep and dour but quick to laughter. When he breaks into a sudden chuckle it’s the aural equivalent of seeing a flock of elephants take wing. Calling from a Los Angeles hotel room, his fluid English reflects the years he spent as a film student in New York in the late 1980s, back when he was one of the young vanguard of the so-called “Fifth Generation” of Chinese directors whose visually sumptuous and subtly subversive movies earned attention—for different reasons—in global cinema and the communist state.
Chen’s reputation in the U.S. hinges mostly on Concubine, an epic account of the more tumultuous parts of 20th century Chinese history as filtered through the lives of two members of the Beijing Opera. Concubine won the 1993 Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival, but Chen’s later movies—Moon, The Emperor and the Assassin, Together—received less acclaim. With The Promise, Chen—like his colleague Zhang Yimou, who went from Raise the Red Lantern to House of Flying Daggers—shifts his focus from making entertaining art to making artful entertainment.
“”I strongly feel like I like people to see this film as an entertainment film,” Chen says. “For the mass audience, there’s not a reason to dig deeper to find the real meaning of the film. Also, the large percentage of the Chinese domestic market is dominated by American action films. So in that case it’s time for us to do something different than what we did in the past. I’m not saying this film is strong enough to be competitive with American films, but it shows a more Chinese perspective.”
That Chinese perspective appears early in The Promise when the goddess Manshen (Chen Hong, the director’s wife) appears to a young urchin girl and offers to change her fate: She will be beautiful, wealthy, adored, and safe, but only if she accepts being abandoned by every man she loves. Twenty years later, the adult Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung) is just as Manshen promised, and just as tormented by the three men in her life—the general Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada), who earned her love the day he rode up in his resplendent Crimson Armor and saved her from death; the slave Kunlun (Jang Dong Gun), who burns with the knowledge that it was actually he who wore the armor that day; and the cruel duke Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), who, aided by his ghostly black-clad henchman Snow Wolf (Liu Yeh), dreams of caging Qingcheng like a canary to avenge a distant slight.
Chen consciously assembled a pan-Asian cast for The Promise, choosing a mix of mainland and Hong Kong-born Chinese actors, as well as making pilgrimages to Seoul and Tokyo to request the cooperation of Korean actor Jang Dong Gun —“I was very impressed with Jang, with his eyes,” Chen says, “They’re so innocent”—and Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada. These sojourns were necessary for Chan to augment his vision of a nationless, eraless Asian myth set, as he puts it, “3,000 years ago in the future.”
Unfortunately, the movie’s look is exceedingly schizoid, a chop suey of Chinese opera, scroll painting, Hong Kong-influenced American blockbusters, and PlayStation games, sprinkled with a healthy dusting of falling flower petals that gust through pivotal scenes as if the characters were in an upended snow globe or a unicorn-themed bookmark. While some fantasy details—like how the exquisitely sanguine Crimson Armor is embedded with real roses—add texture to the fairy tale, the undisciplined sentimentality and silly grandeur of most of its visuals may leave even the most Sinophilic Western audiences stifling a snicker.
The Promise’s $35 million price tag is the dearest of any Chinese movie to date, but Chen steadfastly refused to let his ego inflate on account of his budget. “I just told myself, I need this kind of money to do this picture, but there’s no reason to be proud of that, because the pressure is very heavy,” he says. “Because I want the film to be completed in a decent way and hope that the money can come back.”
Even given the generous budget to achieve his vision, he’s not sure if he wants to make another movie like The Promise—though he hasn’t completely ruled it out. “I’m not so sure about that, because I am completely exhausted after two and a half years,” Chen says. “I just feel like I deserve to spend more time with my children, who are very young. But I’m thinking to do another one.”
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