The Promise (Wu ji)


The Promise

Just one of many stunning visuals from The Promise.

(2005) Martial Arts Fantasy (Warner Independent) Hiroyuki Sanada, Dong-Kun Jang, Cecilia Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Ye Liu, Hong Chen, Cheng Qian, Anthony Wong. Directed by Chen Kaige

Over the past ten years or so America has discovered the films of Asia. Ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon major Hollywood studios have been looking for the next Asian film to connect with Western audiences. In particular, the Weinstein Brothers of Miramax films and more recently of Weinstein films have snapped up a number of pictures in the Crouching Tiger vein and left them languishing on the shelf, leaving fans of Asian films (like myself) twisting in the wind.

Long listed on Weinstein release schedules as Master of the Crimson Armor, the Weinsteins and filmmaker Chen Kaige (who is best known for Farewell My Concubine) couldn’t agree on a release strategy so eventually the rights were let go and picked up by Warner Brothers, who in turn shuffled them off to their independent arm Warner Independent. Finally the now re-titled The Promise (which was its title in other English-speaking territories) would see the light of day here in America. Unfortunately, it didn’t get such a wide release that a ton of people were able to see it, and quite frankly it didn’t do thrilling box office numbers.

In all fairness, it’s somewhat of a confusing story and Western audiences may not appreciate Eastern fantasy. Set in the Kingdom where Gods, mortals and not-quite-mortals dwell side-by-side, a young girl makes a promise to a goddess to forego true love in exchange for wealth, comfort, beauty and power. Somewhat later, the young girl has become a princess (Cheung) in the Kingdom where the King’s best General (Sanada) fights against a ruthless warlord (Tse). Aiding the general is a slave (Jang) with remarkable powers.

The general receives word that the King (Qian) has been surrounded by the forces of the Warlord and sets out to save the King, but is attacked by a mysterious man in black (Liu) and wounded. He sends his slave to rescue the King, dressing him in the general’s magical Crimson Armor to hide the slave’s identity. The slave, not knowing who the King is, kills the King when the King tries to murder the Princess (don’t ask). The slave rescues the princess and the two fall in love, except that the Princess thinks he’s the general. Unfortunately, the Princess is recaptured and to spare her life, the slave agrees to jump over a cliff, which he does. This being a Chinese fantasy, he survives long enough to aid the General in rescuing the Princess. However, she thinks she’s in love with the General, who discovers her feelings early on and because he has fallen for the girl himself, doesn’t correct her error. However, according to her promise to the goddess, she is doomed to lose her love. What’s a fantasy princess to do?

The plot is all over the place and the less said about it the better. Don’t try to follow it or else your brain will swell up to the size of a dishwasher and float out of your head until it reaches some bizarre Chinese heaven at which point it will….see, it’s happening to me too. There are numerous CG effects in the movie and quite frankly, some of them simply don’t work. Both the writing and the special effects really make it difficult to love the movie.

What saves it is the cinematography of Peter Pau, who is for my money the best at what he does in Asia. Almost every shot is visual poetry, filled with color, form and elegance to the point that you nearly weep. After awhile, I found myself just tuning out the dialogue and plot points and just watching the visual imagery, like a visit to an art gallery.

The DVD contains both English and Mandarin versions of the movie. I do recommend the Mandarin version for two reasons. Firstly, the acting isn’t nearly as overwrought and quite simply it is much easier to then ignore the plot and subtitles to concentrate on the visuals. I can see now why the Weinsteins hesitated to give this the kind of general release that Kaige wanted. Quite frankly, it isn’t up to snuff in terms of Western storytelling expectations. Still, it is lovely to look at and worth seeing just for the visual aspect alone, but just don’t say you weren’t warned about the plot.

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning cinematography by Peter Pau. Impressive martial arts seqneuces.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot meanders all over the place and quite frankly defies belief. The acting is nothing to write home about.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some stylized violence and fantasy martial arts sequences, as well as a few moments of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PUSUITS: At the time of its release, this was the most expensive film ever made in China.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.9M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Green Lantern

The Painted Veil


The Painted Veil

An idyllic moment amidst disease, chaos, mistrust, infidelity and death - just another day at the office.

(2006) Period Drama Based on Literature (Warner Independent) Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Diana Rigg, Toby Jones, Catherine An, Anthony Wong, Bin Li, Marie-Laure Descoureaux, Juliet Howland, Sally Hawkins, Maggie Steed. Directed by John Curran

Based on the Somerset Maugham novel, this is a story about betrayal and redemption set against the magnificent backdrop of a China in flux. It is also a pretty damn good movie.

Dr. Walter Fane (Norton) is a bacteriologist who finds working with microbes far easier than dealing with human beings. He is closed-off, a little bit cold and awkward. That doesn’t mean, however, that he isn’t passionate. The first time he sees Kitty (Watts), he falls head over heels.

Unfortunately, Kitty doesn’t feel the same way. Still, she’s feeling increasingly trapped in her jazz-age London home, with stifling parents, particularly an overbearing mother (Steed) who has absolutely no confidence in her. Once the impulsive Fane proposes, Kitty is inclined to say no but an overheard conversation prompts Kitty to change her mind, if no other reason than to escape her mother.

Fane can offer that to her. After all, he works for the British government at their laboratory in Shanghai. It is an exotic posting, one with a good deal to distinguish it. Kitty doesn’t see it that way, however. For her, it’s merely trading one hell for another. Walter tries to indulge her in her gossip and games, but he clearly isn’t interested. Kitty quickly becomes bored and lonely.

She meets vice-consul Charlie Townsend (Schreiber), a passionate man who is everything Walter is not – impulsive, sexy, outgoing and charming. The two quickly become involved in a torrid affair. However, Walter finds out about it. While he doesn’t go berserk, he is infuriated and humiliated. Determined to inflict his own pain on his wife, he gives her an ultimatum. She may either accept a divorce, or accompany her husband to a small village in China’s interior that has been stricken by a cholera epidemic, which Walter has volunteered to go in and assist. He does give her a way out – if Charlie agrees to divorce his wife and marry Kitty, Walter will accept a quiet divorce to allow the lovers to be together. However, Walter knows – and Kitty ultimately has her naiveté shattered – that Charlie will do no such thing.

It takes nearly two weeks for the Fanes to arrive in the village, and the situation there is grim. The populace is dropping like flies, the French Catholic orphanage is filled with orphaned children – as well as children dying from the same disease – and already distrustful of foreigners, the people of the village are a powderkeg ready to blow. They are met by a somewhat rumpled civil servant named Waddington (Jones) who proves to be a sympathetic ear for Kitty, while the orphanage’s Mother Superior (Rigg) is something of a mother figure for her. Soon, she begins to see her husband in a whole new light, provoking changes in herself. Will Walter be able to forgive her and see how she has changed, or will the disease or the angry Nationalists cut them down before there’s time?

This is a beautifully shot movie, utilizing gorgeous Chinese backdrops nicely. You really get a terrific sense of the British foreign service in the 1920s, with all the arrogance and tunnel-vision that was present in the day. Director Curran makes what is a fairly dry and dusty novel live and breathe on the screen – Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay also helps see to that.

Norton, who hasn’t had a sub-par performance in a very long time, delivers another noteworthy job as Walter. He is stiff and reserved, his body language reflecting it every step of the way. While his British accent is a little dicey, he nonetheless inhabits the role well, making Walter a bit more sympathetic than he was in the novel, where he came off much more viciously.

Watts was a little overwhelmed by the part, I think. She’s not a bad actress, but I was less entranced with her Kitty. Kitty needs to be a very spoiled, extremely immature young girl who behaves impulsively and rashly, the very antithesis of Walter. Norton and Watts also deliver very little chemistry, which is perhaps the most glaring negative in the movie. They are supposed to come together by the end of the movie, but I don’t get that sense. They seem to merely accept each other more than embrace each other. That makes the final scenes a bit less powerful than they might have been otherwise.

Still, there is a magnificent epic quality to the film that makes me wish I’d seen it on the big screen, but it frankly didn’t get a lot of buzz when it came out and it got lost amongst all the holiday movies and Oscar contenders that were released at around the same time. Still, this is definitely worth seeing. Norton is wonderful, the script and cinematography are breathtaking and the movie captures the period well. If you use movies to transport you to another place and time, one you could not ordinarily be able to get to on your own, then your magic carpet awaits you.

REASONS TO RENT: Another fine Edward Norton performance. Gorgeous cinematography. An intelligent script based on a classic Somerset Maugham novel.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Naomi Watts doesn’t quite nail her role. Chemistry between leads is lacking.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of a village ravaged by disease and civil war, as well as partial nudity and depictions of drug use. Parents might want to think twice about letting their younger children see this, although for older teens it might make a fine introduction to the works of Maugham as well as to colonial-era China.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During filming, Norton injured his back when his horse threw him onto some rocks. He didn’t seek proper medical treatment until shooting concluded and he returned to Hong Kong. It turned out that he had fracutred three vertebrae in his back.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.5M on an unreported production budget. Since the filmmakers received financial assistance from a Chinese production company, it is likely that the studio made money on this venture.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Love and Other Drugs

Duck Season


Duck Season

A lazy Sunday afternoon, and there's nothing to do.

(Warner Independent) Enrique Arreola, Daniel Miranda, Diego Cantano, Danny Perea, Carolina Politi. Directed by Fernando Eimbcke

When you are 14 years old, a single day can stretch out into an eternity of boredom, particularly on a Sunday afternoon with nothing in particular to do. Sometimes, a day can define you in ways you cannot conceive of.

Flama (Miranda) and his best friend Moko (Cantano) are stuck in the high-rise apartment in Mexico City where Flama lives with his mother (Politi). She is going out for the day and has left the two of them with a gallon of soda and enough money for a pizza. They proceed to divvy up the soda into two huge glasses and set about playing a soccer game on the X-Box.

The door knocks and it is Rita (Perea), the 16-year-old neighbor girl who needs to use their oven to bake a cake. The two boys are at first a bit reluctant but Rita pushes past their objections with the acerbic sharpness that only a 16-year-old girl can muster. The boys order their pizza, but when Ulises (Arreola) shows up at the door with their food, there is a dispute over whether he arrived in the allotted window of time before the pizza is free. He refuses to leave until he gets paid. The boys offer to play him at the X-Box game they’ve been playing with the winner getting the pizza money but the ending to even that wind up in dispute.

Rita’s cake is a disaster and she sensibly decides to bake brownies instead because they’re much easier. She adds a little extra something and away the quartet goes, flying high.

Flama’s mother is in the process of divorcing Flama’s father and Flama is unsure if he will remain with his mother in the apartment. In fact, the one thing that Flama is quite sure of is that his parents are far concerned with the distribution of their possessions than with Flama himself.

Reading the synopsis of the movie’s plot sounds like an exercise in boredom and to a certain extent, that’s what the movie is all about. Director Eimbcke, filming his first feature-length film, chooses to shoot in drab black and white which perfectly augments the mood and creates a tone of desperate boredom in the way that 14-year-olds get bored. This is very low key, which actually is part of what captures your attention.

The actors, mostly juveniles, do a marvelous job. All of them feel authentic for their age and social circumstance. These are upper middle class kids who have most of the comforts that middle class kids here in the States have, although conspicuous by its absence is the Internet. Still, despite the location and the language differences, this could easily have taken place in any big city in the United States as well. Sure, there are no action sequences and there really is no resolution to the movie. It’s just a day in the life and not a particularly interesting one, but all the same it is an important day, one that gives us a good deal of insight into not only Flama, Moko, Rita and Ulises but also into ourselves as well.

If I were reading this review, I’d probably choose to give this movie a pass which is more a function of my limited skills rather than of the merits of the movie. I’m not sure I adequately captured how enjoyable this movie is and how appealing the performances are. It has the right lilt of a Sunday afternoon at a time of life when you’re on the cusp of the best time of your life. It’s bittersweet, charming and ultimately gives you a glimpse back at your own adolescence. That’s a pretty good special effect right there.

WHY RENT THIS: Those who like slice of life movies will be thrilled with this one. The relationships and the characters feel very authentic. The black and white photography enhances the mood and the subject very nicely.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There isn’t a great deal of action and the movie lacks inertia which I believe is the point – however, the attention span-challenged might find this difficult to watch.

FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of foul language, an unnerving but not graphic scene at a dog pound and some drug usage. I’m not sure why this got an “R” rating but quite frankly it didn’t deserve it. This is perfectly suitable for the young teens that are the subject of this movie.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won 11 Ariel Awards, the Mexican equivalent of the Oscars. No other movie had won that many prior to Duck Season.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The International