The Promise is a visually spectacular Chinese fairytale framed with the Eastern equivalent of Once upon a time, in a land, far, far away … In this world, men and gods occupy the same landscape—the former are violent; the later are mischievous—and when they mingle, destinies are altered.
Our story opens in the aftermath of battle, in which a young girl is caught stealing food from a dead soldier. Her captor is a young boy and she manages to dupe him into letting her go free—an incident that would haunt both their lives. Our sympathies for the girl's plight are heightened when we realize she is trying to get the food to her dying mother. But when the goddess Manshen (Chen Hong) happens upon the girl and reveals her mother is already dead, she tearfully devours the bread with the goddess' admonition echoing in her ears, "You must live."
Manshen makes the girl an offer that would alter the course of her life. She can grow up to be rich and beautiful on one condition—she will lose every man she truly loves unless time flows backward, it snows in spring (all she needs to do is move to Chicago, but I digress), and the dead come back to life. In the seconds that the girl ponders life without the love of a man—exchanging something that, to a young girl, must have seemed like an abstract good from for something that which would assuage her very present hunger—I couldn't help but think of Eve's decision in Genesis 3 to eat the forbidden fruit. Surely neither woman was capable of grasping the full ramifications of her decision. But both women nodded and by their choices, destinies changed.
The narrative jumps ahead and the young girl has grown up to be Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung). She quickly finds herself one corner of a sort of love square, with the other right angles occupied by Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun), a slave who runs likes the wind, disgraced General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada), who's made his own deal with the gods, and the bitter Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), Duke of the North.
Qingcheng, Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun) … and lots of flower petals
Moviegoers won't see any of the faces here that have become familiar via recent popular Chinese exports—Ziyi Zhang, for example, was in Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—but they will recognize the trademark surrealism that characterizes many of the modern Chinese epics. Whirlwind battle scenes with warriors sparring in midair (good thing Isaac Newton wasn't around, because he wouldn't have discovered gravity in this world), flowers and feathers falling in slow motion, steel juxtaposed against billowy fabrics, bright colors everywhere. And on top of this, CGI effects that don't even try to appear realistic—floating deities, a man that outruns stampeding bison, an aerial survey of the imperial city—add another layer of fantasy to the project. At every turn you are reminded that this is a fairy tale. The mascot of the hardened General Guangming's Crimson Guard is a rose, for goodness sake!