It is irresistible to compare Chen Kaige's new film "The Promise," which opened early this week in Beijing to much fanfare, with the productions of Zhang Yimou, another Chinese director.
Not because both belong to the well-known fifth generation of Chinese film directors who graduated from the same Beijing Film Academy more than 20 years ago.
But it's because Chen's latest fantasy production easily reminds film-goers of Zhang's "Hero" (Ying Xiong) in 2002 and "House of Flying Daggers" (Shi Mian Mai Fu) in 2004.
They share too many similarities.
Zhang's two mega productions top the box-office ranking of all Chinese movies that have ever been made. At the same time, they received an unprecedented amount of unfavourable reviews.
The mixture of awesome action sequences and gorgeous photography with simple-minded, even naive, storylines makes them typical representatives of formalism.
While Zhang already went to the extremes, Chen's latest offering goes even further.
"The Promise" is another disappointing lame movie with more dazzling special effects but a less convincing, less interesting story.
It is a shocking pity that it is made by the director of "Farewell My Concubine," one of the best Chinese movies in the 1990s and winner of Cannes' best film award in 1993.
Although it is full of hitting, kicking and flying, strictly speaking, "The Promise" is not a kung fu film. While traditional martial arts movies are about people who possess gravity-defying supernatural power, the people in "The Promise" appear to be more like demigods who possess witchcrafts such as running backward in time.
The opening chapter does bring some surprises. With an imagination and romanticism rarely seen in the cultural genes of the Chinese people, Chen creates a mythical and magical world, which is set in ancient China. This, and the overuse of computer-generated special effects, makes the movie look more like an electronic game.
Some scenes, such as the one showing the slaves being chased by immense herds of furious buffaloes in a U-shape canyon, can knock you off your feet. It seems that Chen is determined to make his movie rival "The Lord of the Rings" or "Harry Potter."
But the director soon loses control of his movie because he fails to arrange all the things he conceives in a clear, reasonable and narrative way.
A lack of logic in the storyline punches plenty of loopholes in "The Promise."
For example, why does the princess (played by Cecelia Cheung) suddenly change her mind and return to the general (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), a man she has left determinedly one year ago?
Why is the princess cursed so that she will never find true love?
Why does the duke (played by Nicholas Tse) hate the princess so much that his hatred even makes him completely lose the power to love anyone? The movie only briefly mentions that it is because the princess cheats on him when they were still children.
This reason is far-fetched and cannot justify itself.
Other questions do not have answers, either. Why is the duke so desperate to frame the general?
Why does the Goddess of Fate (played by Chen Hong), who shows up at the beginning of the movie and never returns, make a bet with the general?
Even the theme of the movie is hazy. Zhang Yimou's "Hero" has a clear, though laughable, theme defining the true meaning of a hero.
But what is the theme of Chen's film? Love? Then why is it titled "Promise"?
The movie's Chinese title, "Wu Ji," adds more muddle. The literal meaning of "Wu Ji" is infinity, but the movie provides no clues relevant to either infinity or finiteness.
The only appearance of the word "Wu Ji" is in the conversation between the Goddess of Fate and the general. The former tells the latter that he is destined to lose his love at the time of sunset when flowers fade because "it is the power of Wu Ji."
What is Wu Ji? Is it a god or a kind of superpower? We do not know.
It may be unfair to accuse Chen of underestimating the importance of storylines and plots. He is attempting to tell a good and novel story. Only he fails to achieve that goal.
One of the reasons for his failure is that he tries to attach too many symbolic meanings to his movie. Every character is designed to represent something.
Here Chen commits the general fault of many Chinese film-makers. He strives to make his movie philosophical, to teach the audience something. He first raises a concept, then conceives a story to explain that concept.
This is not necessarily bad, of course. What is really bad is that he does not (or cannot) hide his intentions to teach. As a result, the movie inevitably loses the power to entertain the audience or to make them think, the essential quality that makes a good movie.
Another flaw in the movie is its dialogue. In order to be qualified to compete for an Oscar, the major actors and actresses Nicholas Tse and Cecelia Cheung from Hong Kong, Hiroyuki Sanada from Japan and Jang Dong-Gun from South Korea are required to speak their own lines instead of using dubbing.
The first two, who speak Cantonese, are not quite fluent in Mandarin. The other two do not speak Chinese at all, and just memorize basic pronunciation. For the Chinese audience, it is quite funny to hear so many strange accents and tones in a movie. But this blemish is nothing compared with the overall failure of the movie in its storytelling.
To summarize, "The Promise" proves the status quo of China's film business: It does not lack good directors, nor does it lack good actors and actresses, investment and market, but it is seriously short of talented screenwriters.
"The Promise" has already been selected as China's official entry for the Oscar's best foreign film award. Pinning any hope on its winning the award, however, is unrealistic.
With a budget of 340 million yuan (US$42 million) enough to produce 100 ordinary movies in China, "The Promise" is the most expensive Chinese movie so far. But people will have to wait to see whether it will break the 200 million yuan (US$24.7 million) box-office record of Zhang Yimou's "Hero."
Source: China Daily