Even a masterful director like Chen Kaige can deliver colorful tripe in the form of an epic romantic fantasy.
The Promise aka "Master of the Crimson Armor" somehow was China's entry for Best Foreign-Language Film. The country's largest budgeted film isn't really making quite a killing at home for good reason. Instead of having some of the emotional resonance of Hero or House of Flying Daggers, an imaginative, nearly operatic rendering quickly becomes cartoonish, mainly through digital trickery.
Chen may not be a great storyteller, but here, as a co-writer, he cheapens what looks to have much potential. It's not grounded in reality for a stylized effect as in Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, which instilled broad humor into gangsta cinema.
A spunky young girl, Qingcheng, promises an enchantress (Chen Hong) that she won't be able to have true love, but the comforts of life, notably wealth.
The labyrinthe tale spends most of the running time years later when Qingcheng (a very comely Cecilia Cheung) is a sultry princess. Those very interested in this alluring young woman include the fierce General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada of The White Countess) and his handsome foe Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse). Jang Dong-Kun is the intense Kunlun who proves to be quite a warrior that enables the General to wear a suit of crimson armor let the very fast fellow (time flies by in reverse) become his personal slave. Another character perhaps deserving of his own story is Wuhuan's unusual minion, Snow Wolf (Liu Ye). He's seen in a dark, magical cloak.
Chen stages it all with a mystical, adventurous mystique that is mounted with a sumptuous tableau, complemented by the designs and lensing by Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Yet, the computerized imagery has a synchronicity with a random approach to plotting and characters that isn't fascinating, as most would agree that the visual effects, at best, are second-rate.
Those really willing to let go may have some fun in sequences with Kunlun in flight with the kite-like Princess, or with the General and his mistress up against a stampeding army. The manipulation of the supernatural tries to help redefine characters in a likeable way, but this daft thrust is much more costumey in nature and content than Zhang Yimou or Ang Lee would consider. Cheung is a viable emotional center, but all of the strange interconnections to a resolution perceived by its makers to be gripping is something she can't gently untangle. For all of the discoveries, survivals, rescues, and battles that occur, it's a miracle that The Promise thinks that the inexplicable can somehow make sense at the emotional climax.