With The Promise, the Chinese director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) bounds aboard the international martial-artsy express of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers—the genre in which warriors don’t just whack away at one another but do so amid slow-motion swirling cherry blossoms, with every picture a po-em. Many of Chen’s admirers will roll their eyes at this high-flying departure (Zhang was ridiculed in some quarters for the florid Daggers), but I found The Promise pretty hard to resist. A heady blend of swordplay, somersaults, fairy-tale romance, and computer-generated whoosh, the picture carries you along as fast as … as … a runner from the Land of Snow.
You won’t get that reference unless you’ve seen the movie—but trust me, it’s very fast. The hero, a handsome slave named Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun), has an uncanny ability to outrun arrows and stampeding cattle, which comes in handy when a horde of arrows and stampeding cattle bear down on him and his fellow slaves. With his comrades dead, Kunlun is adopted by an imperious general (Hiroyuki Sanada) in majestic crimson armor and dispatched to take his wounded master’s place on a mission to save their imperiled monarch. The trouble is that when the slave (disguised as the master) finds the king on the verge of stabbing the willowy Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung), he skewers the old beast and makes off with the beauty. Or, rather, he catches the beauty when she plunges from the roof of the towering palace and gallops to the edge of a waterfall that looks like Niagara squared. Nothing in this sort of movie is ever small-scale.
Or narratively straight-ahead. The Promise is a classic fairy tale with a hairpin psychological twist: In a prologue, the starving young Qingcheng is visited by the goddess Manshen (Chen Hong), who offers a life of unrivaled beauty and riches—provided the girl accepts that she’ll lose any man she loves. That means that the course of true love will not just be not smooth, it will involve multiple disguises, trips back and forth in time, and, for the super-runner hero, a spiritual directive: Kunlun learns that he must not run just, to, say, avoid getting an arrow in his back. He must run to “discover his true heart’s desire.” And even then the goddess will have to come back and sort it all out.
The Promise is reportedly the most expensive film to come out of mainland China, and Chinese wages being what they are, that’s a lot of bang for your yuan. The colors and textures evoke the latest in Chinese mythological chic: a lot of light juxtaposed with heavy—feathers on armor, blossoms on steel, and long, swishy black tresses on everything. When the princess is captured by the Duke of the North (Nicholas Tse) and becomes a bird in a gilded cage, she is seen, by way of illustration, in a giant golden cage in a cloak of white feathers. Plumed, too, is a sad, whey-faced assassin called Snow Wolf (Liu Ye), whose avian cloak makes him look like a mangy cartoon raven.
Cartoons often come to mind watching The Promise, because the special effects are not remotely realistic. That doesn’t diminish the thrill, though, the way it does in the first Spider-Man when Tobey Maguire vanishes and in his place there’s a little video-game figure swinging through a digitized grid. Here, the animation suggests a kind of magical delirium that perfectly suits the emotions of these demigods and -goddesses, whose love gives them the capacity to alter their supposedly fixed destinies. My only complaint is that some of the scenes hurtle by too fast; I’d like to see the overseas release, before Harvey and Bob Weinstein lopped off eighteen minutes. (The brothers sold the film, and it ended up with Warner Independent Pictures, but the eighteen minutes stayed lopped-off.) When Harvey’s gunning for your running time, not even Chen Kaige can alter destiny.
Possibly there has never been a movie about the art world that’s as much of an eyesore as the coming-of-age oddity Art School Confidential. The director, Terry Zwigoff, can’t find a visual style for a story that begins like a Revenge of the Nerds for aesthetes and then creeps into darker territory, as the screenwriter (and graphic novelist) Daniel Clowes mines the hack-’em-up that lurks under the teen-sex comedy. It shouldn’t be much of a stretch (nerd sexual anxiety is the bedrock of most slasher movies), but Zwigoff doesn’t get the tone right, and the picture goes from reasonably amusing (if crude) to puzzling to boring to (when a campus strangler enters the picture) hateful.
The last Zwigoff-Clowes collaboration, Ghost World, had the same life-sucks-and-then-you-die perspective, but the director’s frames were wittily deadpan, and he got a lot of mileage out of Thora Birch’s and Scarlett Johansson’s glum demeanors and lingering traces of baby fat. But there’s nothing to be made of the increasingly rancid protagonist Jerome Platz (the black-browed Max Minghella), who’s bullied in grade school and largely ignored in art school. He fixates on the tragic cast of a beautiful artist’s model (Sophia Myles), but when he loses her to a studly artist who becomes all the rage in this shallow, vapid, even ghostlier world of art poseurs, Jerome’s misanthropy eats him up.
I’ve always been haunted by the end of Clowes’s story “Like a Weed, Joe,” in which his alter ego, Rodger Young, announces, “I went to a new school where I struggled to be thought of as someone who housed a vital and complicated inner world.” There’s more insight in that confession than in all of Art School Confidential, a curdled mess of self- and other-loathing.
Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a 154-minute one-joke movie, but since the joke concerns the end of a person’s life, it has a momentousness you can’t shake off. The obvious comparison is to Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich, but the protagonist here is even less distinctive—as a camera subject, poor, grizzled Mr. Lazarescu with his headache and swollen liver is almost completely closed off. He wets and soils himself, and still the other characters—neighbors, nurses, and doctors—lecture him about his drinking before turning their attention to matters like borrowed drills or horoscopes. Although a lone emergency medical technician takes her part in this indifferent universe, she’s helpless to hold anyone’s attention for long. It’s almost a blessing when Mr. Lazarescu slips into dementia. Of course, that means he’s unable to sign a consent form to be operated on. This Romanian movie defies categorization—it’s halfway between a black comedy and a Fred Wiseman documentary. And it haunts you like the ghost of any dead person you’ve ever ignored.
“I was interested in making a new Asian film,” Chen Kaige said before the Japanese premiere of The Promise. He wasn’t just talking about his big budget (still only $35 million—or not so big by U.S. standards) but also his cast. “This film is like an experiment on the cultural environment … in Asia today,” he said. Accordingly, he cast South Korea’s Jang Dong-Gun, Hiroyuki Sanada (the first Japanese actor to ever perform with the RSC), the notorious Hong Kong pop star Nicholas Tse, and clean-cut Hong Kong starlet Cecilia Cheung. One of the reasons for that record-breaking budget? Said Chen, “We had to cater different kinds of food.”.
Directed by Chen Kaige. Warner Independent Pictures. PG-13.
Art School Confidential
Directed by Terry Zwigoff. Sony Pictures Classics. R.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Directed by Cristi Puiu. Tartan Films. R.