[The following review refers to the 124 minute version released in Feb 2006, in Japan.]
`Wu Ji' (meaning `No Limitation') is an epic-scale romance directed by renowned Chen Kaige (`Farewell My Concubine' 'Together'). Like the fantasy tales of `Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' `Hero' and `House of the Flying Daggers,' you can say the film belongs to the film genre usually called `wusha,' but what is impressive about 'Wu Ji' (or `The Promise' with international title) is its cast and crew gathered for the production. But about that, later.
[STORY: LITTLE GIRL] The film opens with a memorable shot, in which an orphaned girl wanders among the dead bodies of warriors in the battlefield. The starving girl meets a beautiful but haughty deity Manshen, the Sorceress (Chen Hong, also co-producer and Chen Kaige's wife), who promises the little girl Quingcheng everything - easy life, status, etc. - on one condition. That is, Quingcheng can never get true love from anyone. And the goddess says: `Once you have accepted your destiny, nothing can alter it unless rivers flow uphill, time runs backwards, and the dead come back to life.' She accepts it, not knowing what the pact really means.
[GENERAL AND SLAVE] Years later, the film introduces us to another battlefied, a ravine where Guanming, The Mighty General (Hiroyuki Sanada `The Last Samurai') is waiting for the next battle. The army of the General is outnumbered by the enemy soldiers, but the General, overconfident and very arrogant, is saved by the miraculous work by one slave Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun, 'The Brotherhood of War'). Greatly impressed by the superhuman power of Kunlun (who can "run" with lightning speed even on four limb), the General takes Kunlun under his wing, and continues his battles.
The plot thickens when grown-up Quingcheng, now the Princess (Cecilia Cheung), is kidnapped by Kunlun who disguises himself wearing the armor of the General. While Kunlun is enchanted by the beauty of the Princess/Quingcheng, she is also in love with this brave man in gorgeous armor, thinking that he is the General, not the slave.
[TWO MEMORABLE SUPPORTS] The three principal players Hiroyuki Sanada, Jang Dong-Gun and Cecilia Cheung are all good, but probably Nicholas Tse as ruthless Wuhuan and Liu Yeh as assassin Snow Wolf will linger in your memory much longer with their long fight sequence (with clever use flying fans). Nicholas Tse succeeds in making the role of the `villain' surprisingly three-dimensional, and Liu Yeh gives a credible portrait as a killer, or a doomed man who must accept the fact he cannot escape from the inevitable fate.
As is seen in `House of the Flying Daggers' the story of `Wu Ji' is generally melodramatic, but that didn't bother me. What is regrettable is that for all the good acting from these actors, the director fails to explore the romantic side of the story. The film's pace is often too slow, sometimes digressing into a sub-plot, and the film's tone is sometimes ineptly chosen. (With not-so-great CGI, some part of the film looks unintentionally comical).
[WELL, THE SPECIAL EFFECTS ARE ... er ... UNIQUE] What should I say? I am trying not to use the standard of Hollywood (which is not perfect, you know), but even so, the effects of `Wu Ji' look awfully misguided, or at least far from sophisticated. `Bad' is not the right word, for several effects are actually beautifully done. Still, in this epic fantasy, handsome and talented Jang Dong-Gun must run madly on four limbs, among the stampede of the wild bulls ... and he wins the race! Cecilia Cheung's Princess is literally kept in a cage (and herself in a while bird-like costume), and she actually `flies.' There is nothing subtle about Chen Kaige's use of CGI, and some of them may make the audiences giggle at the most serious moment.
The fantastic photography is by Peter Pau (`Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon') and the beautiful costume by Kimiya Masago and Tin Yip. Well, I don't know why Chen Kaige insisted on the use of these special effects when he can liberally use their excellent works. The music is by Klaus Badelt (`Time Machine' and others).
It is reported that `Wu Ji' is the most expensive film ever made in China, and looking at the picture, you can easily see where all these money went. It is regrettable that more refined storytelling and more restrained CGI images would be much effective and desirable in this epic romance film.