The most anticipated Chinese-language movie this year, Chen Kaige's "The Promise" is a brilliant new chapter in the kungfu-drama subgenre in the vein of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger," "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," and also marks the Chinese master's first foray into kungfu films.
As Ang Lee says, "every Chinese director wants to direct a kungfu movie." Three major directors have also jumped on the bandwagon - Wong Kar Wai, Hou Hsiao-hsien and John Woo have announced their plans to venture into the genre. There is no dispute in the inexplicable universal appeal of the kungfu movie to the global audience.
Kungfu movies is the East Asian equivalent of the superhero movies inspired by comic books in the West. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is the Chinese counterpart to George Lucas' "Star Wars" series, in which the common people's desire for a better world is projected onto the hero's journey in the movie. Like the comic book genre in the U.S., the kungfu novel genre was once a disdained and even "banned" genre that has finally seeped into mainstream culture, sweeping across the globe because it reflects and speaks to the common man.
Chen Kaige's "The Promise" recounts the story of Princess Qinsheng, who is so ravishingly beautiful that every man falls in love with her at first sight. Qinsheng stays at the king's extravagant court but lives a loveless life because she made a pledge with the Goddess of Fate to give up true love in exchange for material fulfillment. Her sad fate makes an unexpected turn when she is rescued by the slave Kunlen, who kills the king. During the escape, she is captured by the Duke of North, who has fallend for her. The General Quanming sends his slave to rescue Qinsheng and claims her as his lover. Torn between the loves of three men, Qinsheng gradually finds out that her pledge with the goddess will lead her to an unexpected fate.
For Chen Kaige, there is no doubt that he is jumping on the bandwagon of the global high-brow kungfu. However, it's a test of the director's range to see if he could move from an arthouse piece to a mega-production film while maintaining his heart. Chen has proved that he could.
During Chen Kaige and his producer/actress wife's press junket in Taipei last week, Chen said: "The comparison to 'Lord of the Rings' is unfitting. "Lord of the Rings' is adapted from literature and is a trilogy while "The Promise" is based on our original play."
Despite Chen's denial, the comparison is inevitable. Both "The Promise" and "Lord of the Rings" series have a place in the fantasy genre. Even more eerie, both movies start with the similar caption epilogue that "in the beginning of the world, human beings and gods co-existed." Both movies are stories of myth in which gods, demons, demi-gods and human beings engage in existential battles before the world takes its shape.
The theme of love runs through in both movies as well. In "Lord of the Rings," the fairy Arwen gave up her immortality in order to be with her beloved Aragorn. In "The Promise," Qinsheng breaks her promise with the goddess and opts to forsake fortune and royal status for the love of a man.
Despite the media hype on the CGI used in "The Promise," it took years for Chen to warm up to the idea of using such tricks.
"I used to resist using special effects in movies. I think the movie's story is the most important thing and so I shy away from special effects," said Chen. "However, in order to create the atmosphere of a fantasy world required by the story of 'The Promise,' I finally gave up my special effects prejudice and tried my best to use it to serve the story."
"The Promise" marks many firsts for Chen -- his first kungfu movie, his first fantasy genre movie and his first movie with a happy ending. "My previous movies about China's feudal past were heavy and serious. They are harder for the audience to swallow," Chen explained. "But in my private life, I am not someone who is serious all the time. I want to enjoy my life too. Therefore, for "The Promise," I decided to include some elements from my childhood fantasies and dreams to make it a more optimistic and happy movie."
For a fantasy movie, Chen considers the setting and costume just as important as the characters in the movie. To achieve the ideal result, he invited Oscar winning designer Tim Yip to oversee the art direction and costume design.
"It's essential for all the major characters to have very unique and distinctive images and costumes," said Chen. "Tim has done such a fantastic job in designing these characters."
"I considered the various key settings as another "character" in the movie because they reflect the mood of the characters," said Chen. "Tim has also done an excellent job in the design of the Imperial City, the Parliament court and the Cherry Tree Villa."
Actress/producer Chen Hong, who is also Chen Kaige'd wife, scolded her
husband in jest at the press conference. "He did not even try to give me face!" she laughed. "He corrected me immediately whenever he felt my performance was not up to his standard as with all the other actors. I didn't have any special privileges as his wife and as the producer of the movie. He told me sternly that 'the goddess has to speak slower and gesticulate faster.'"
Because Chen's character is the Goddess of Fate or "Mansheng" in the movie, she spends her entire shooting time performing in front of the blue screen with wire work in order to create the effects of a goddess flying in the sky. "He is a perfectionistic and is relentless," Chen Hong complained laughing.
"I spent so much time hanging on the wire that my body was all bruised. But he told the crew not to let me down 'just because I am the producer'. Then, of course, when we went home after a day's shooting and he had to be extra nice to me as payback."
As a kungfu fantasy movie, "The Promise" is in nature much closer to Hong Kong master Tsui Hark's "Legend of the Zu" rather than Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger" or Zhang Yimou's "Hero," both of which were set in a specific historical period in China.
As with Tsui's "Zu" series, the world of "The Promise" is a universe in its early birth where gods, monsters, ghouls and human beings co-exist, fight and fall in love with one another. As a result, "The Promise" is a big spectacular visual feast as all the characters, dressed in lavish costumes literally spend most of their time flying across the sky in this movie. Gravity doesn't really apply in a movie where all the major characters possess supernatural powers.
Why does the kungfu genre cross all cultural barriers and speak to audiences worldwide? The spectacular action scenes and stunning costumes certainly do not hurt, but ultimately, it's the kungfu hero's journey that speaks to all of us. Seeing the hero's trials and tribulations on the screen, we are reminded once again that fighting against the system and improving one's life are possible feats. We realize that we do not have to be the prisoners of fate or function within a corrupted system we did not create.
The serialized kungfu novels started flourishing after the founding of the Republic of China and peaked in the 70's with Qing Yuan and Gu Long claiming the titles as the two modern masters of kungfu novel.
Its emergence after the establishment of the Republic of China was not coincidental. Kungfu novels reflect the Chinese common people's desire to go for freedom and independence and topple the inhumane tradition of China's dynastic tradition. A common Chinese saying states that "the kungfu novel is the fairytale story for adults."
In every kungfu novel, the protagonist is always a poor, young underdog whose parents were wrongly killed by a corrupted swordsman, triad or the government. This child practices exceedingly hard to become a supreme kungfu master in order to exact revenge against the decaying swordsman or the corrupted government figure. "Go to hell, Confucianism," all kungfu novels seem to say. "We don't want a rigid social hierarchy system where the young has to be beaten by the elders even if the young is right. We want a new China where everyone is equal and has at least the chance to compete fairly in life."
Fighting against the system has its price. But the kungfu hero tells us that settling meekly into lives we do not want has an even higher price. Through kungfu movies, we look at the hero's struggle and contemplate our own lives and ideals. Then, we realize - what is life without ideals and dreams? As long as ideals and dreams exist, kungfu novels and movies will continue to flourish.
'The Promise,' directed by Chen Kaige, starring Cecilia Cheung, Jang-don Jan, Hiroyuki Sanada, Nicolas Tse and Chen Hong, opens nationwide today.