The Promise
Chen Kaige’s The Promise. Photo: Warner Independent Pictures.

The Promise glows with the richest colors this side of an April tulip field. A gorgeous opening shot tracks pink flower blooms shaken from a tree and descending to the ground. Caught by gusts of wind, the feather-light petals dance in erratic, airborne patterns—before landing in a pool of blood. Director Chen Kaige, the cinematic painter behind these striking visual couplings of serenity and doom, watches his film from the shadows of Seattle’s tiny, church-like Seven Gables Theatre during a spring screening.

With The Promise, Kaige stirs frenetic movement into his epic formula. Searing, eye-candy images remain, but they’re kicked into overdrive by kinetic action. In one of many amped-up battles, soldiers of red and gold ambush one another with ball-and-chain lassos. By incorporating CGI visuals and choreographed stunts into his elegant brew, Kaige serves up a film with the popular crowd appeal of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou’s Hero.

Longtime fans of Asian cinema might be jarred by Kaige’s radical stylistic turn. But they shouldn’t be surprised. Having endured China’s Cultural Revolution during his youth, the director is no stranger to abrupt cultural shifts, violent social upheaval and the need for adaptation. Forced to join the Red Army, attend re-education programs and denounce his moviemaker father as a subversive traitor, Kaige nonetheless emerged as a celebrated, award-winning visionary. (Farewell My Concubine, his examination of Peking Opera Company students, received the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 1993.)

While many of Kaige’s movies reflect a hunger for forbidden fruit during times of political repression, a diverse filmography boasts quirkier projects as well. In 1989 he directed the music video for Duran Duran’s "Do You Believe in Shame." During an uncharacteristic foray into Hollywood moviemaking, Kaige helmed Killing Me Softly, starring Joseph Fiennes and Heather Graham.

Donning a black leather jacket, Kaige emerges from the Seven Gables screening room following a lively Q&A. He sighs, then autographs posters for a handful of filmgoers trailing behind him. In the paragraphs that follow, this giant of contemporary Asian cinema reflects on special effects, ornery stunt coordinators and the significance of color in The Promise.

KJ Doughton (MM): You were once quoted as saying that the film you plan on making is often not the one you end up shooting. With The Promise, how much was planned and how much changed from the original idea?

Chen Kaige (CK): Well, I didn’t mean that I was under any political pressure to change. What I meant was that this was such a big film, I was dealing with many things that I was unfamiliar with, like digital effects. I had to make changes to make sure that the effects coordinators could do what I wanted to do.

MM: Can you give an example of a visual effect from The Promise that was very challenging to get on film?

CK: The scene with the stampede of bulls was one. At first, we got a bunch of real Tibetan buffalo; we wanted to shoot real life animals. Unfortunately, it was so hard. When they came down from their high altitude to a lower land, they got sick. We had to send them back to their owners. Then we decided on CGI stuff.

MM: The colors are more vivid than those associated with most American films. In fact, many films that your DP, Peter Pau, has worked on emphasize vibrant colors. Can you give examples from The Promise in which the colors symbolize specific character traits?

CK: I think that the colors are particularly strong in this film. The reds, which are associated with the General, represent passion. For another character, the Duke, you always see him wearing something black or white. He is very extreme. Those colors show the extremes of his personality.

MM: Were there any choreographed battles or stunts that took a long time to achieve?

CK: Oh, yeah. It’s another very difficult thing to do. Sometimes, I feel like it’s much easier to do the digital effects than the stunts. One indoor stunt took 14 hours. Fourteen hours for one shot! It would take an entire day. I wouldn’t know what to say. I was sitting there like a fool, waiting for something to happen.

For outdoor scenes involving battles and thousands of soldiers, it’s also very tough. To do the action part, you have to be very patient. You are not able to ask, ‘What’s going on here?’ or ‘How long are we going to wait?’ Because it seems to me that the stunt coordinators are always in a very bad mood when they are working. (laughs)

MM: During tonight’s Q&A, you mentioned that even though the Duke is a villain, we still have some understanding of why he is the way he is. There is an early betrayal in the film that helps to explain this. It seems as though character motivation is very important in your films. How important is it to explain a character’s actions to the audience?

CK: I think that at least one reason should be given for why this person can be that bad. In many films, a character is identified as a villain, and you don’t need to ask why. “He’s a villain, that’s why!” (laughs) But to me, it is very important to establish the character’s reason for being good or being bad. It makes the character more amazing. I think that although the Duke has an army and believes in violence, he is very weak inside. He loves himself, but in his own heart he will never be liberated. Inside, he is miserable.

MM: Many of your films have become established at film festivals. How important do you feel film festivals are to your movies and to world cinema in general?

CK: I think that in the cinema world, festivals play a very important role. They introduce new, young filmmakers to the world. Also, they encourage people to continue doing quality films, rather than just commercial films. I think I have been in the Cannes Film Festival competition five times, which is very good; it’s an honor. But sometimes you also have to suffer the results and deal with whatever happens. I’ve been there five times and only got the Palme d’Or one time. But I was very lucky. Some people have been there more times than I and have not gotten anything.

But we’re not making films for the festivals. We’re making films for the audience. But I think the audience would understand cinema better by going to film festivals and watching different kinds of films. That’s for sure.