January 4th, 2006

Living up to THE PROMISE

My buddy Joey O'Bryan (who wrote the fabulous Hong Kong thriller Fulltime Killer a few years back) lured me away today from all the things I should be doing to see Chen Kaige's The Promise, which is playing in L.A. for one week only (and only at 11:30 a.m. every day) to qualify for Academy Awards consideration (it's China's official entry in the Best Foreign Language film category).

The film came with lots of hype, some good (check out Kevin Thomas's massive rave review in last week's L.A. Times) and some not-so good (moviegoers in Hong Kong just named it one of the five worst films of the year, along with Tsui Hark's Seven Swords). I'm pleased to say I'm in the Kevin Thomas camp here. Despite some notoriously clunky CGI (a herd of stampeding buffalo is particularly egregious) and some plotting shorthand (escapes are repeatedly effected with virtually no difficulties encountered), the film is visually gorgeous, very involving, and beautifully acted. Japanese star Hiroyuki Sanada plays General Guangming, who takes the supernaturally-fast Kunlun (Korean hunk Jang Dong-Kun) as his slave. When Guangming sends his slave in his place to rescue his king, Kunlun instead accidentally slays the king and runs off with the gorgeous Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung), who falls in love with her savior; later, she believes Guangming to be the man who rescued her, and a triangle ensues. The triangle becomes a square with the entrance of the scheming Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), the gifted but malicious duke who seeks both power and Qingcheng.

Chinese and Hong Kong cinema are often preoccupied with the notion of fate (see especially another film starring Cecelia Cheung, Johnnie To's Running On Karma), but it's refreshing to see the notion of inescapable destiny placed in both a truly mythological context (fate is literally handed down by the goddess Manshen here) and turned back on itself, when fate collides with honor and love. And speaking of that mythology, The Promise captures the feeling of a Chinese fairy tale better than anything I've seen since Tsui Hark's Green Snake, with detailed production design and an eye-battering color palette.

And that cast...Cecelia Cheung's been in several of my favorite films over the last few years (2004's best film One Nite in Mongkok, Lost in Time, the afore-mentioned Running On Karma), but she's completely different here, bringing a graceful, stately elegance and sense of doom to her performance. I've seen Jang Dong-Kun before (in the Korean scifi fantasy 2009: Lost Memories), but I didn't really notice him; after this performance, rest assured I'll be seeking him out from now on. I've been a big fan of Chinese mainland actor Liu Ye ever since his performance in Stanley Kwan's lovely drama Lan Yu, and Liu has become one of the most gifted and versatile character actors now in world cinema; whether he's playing Snow Wind, The Promise's eerie, tragic assassin, or Floating Landscape's sweet, simple village postman, he's always superb.

But my real favorite performance here belongs to Nicholas Tse. I've loved Nic's film work ever since his first feature film, Young and Dangerous: The Prequel (my god, that blush when Shu Qi kisses him!), but he's never played an out-and-out villain before, and I wasn't sure he had it in him (he's played a lot of sweet-natured, shuffling, mumbling romantic leads, almost a kindler, gentler - and Asian - James Dean), but he more than proved himself with this performance. He's a preening, sadistic megalomaniac, who also handles several martial arts fights with extraordinary skill and grace, and...well, yeah, he's on my desktop now.

While we're on the subject of The Promise, check out the Hong Kong trailer. Guess what? They don't have to put up with that same idiot intoning "ONE MAN...ALONE IN A WORLD...". No stupid narration at all, just scenes that speak for themselves. I detest the American trend for narrated trailers, and can't wait for this fad to die.

Booklad Rules!

My fellah has just started a blog over at the other blogging space (he liked their templates better) dedicated to books. There's pretty much nobody around who knows books better than Ricky Lee (except maybe Harriet Whats-Er-Name, the librarian who posts about twenty book reviews a week at Amazon); he reads like a speed-demon, loves all kinds of books, has worked in every kind of bookstore (and all over the country, from New York to Colorado to California), follows book and publishing news, and...well, lives with a writer. Catch up on all your book news at Booklad!

BTW, his moniker (and the accompanying portrait) was a gift of Nancy Holder's mega-cute daughter Belle.