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MOVIE REVIEW

Only as a fairy tale does'Promise' reach its potential

With a budget of $35 million, Chen Kaige's ''The Promise" is the most expensive film ever made in China. When it was released there in December, advance publicity trumpeted the lavish historical action film as a national treasure. Millions of people bought tickets -- and millions of people came away feeling burned. By January, the backlash was in full swing, and when Chen (''Farewell My Concubine") got huffy about a popular Internet parody of his film, just about everyone sided with the Web guy.

Now ''The Promise" arrives in US theaters, and even as you feel its home audience's pain, it's easy to accept the movie as delirious eye candy. Colorful, swooningly emotional, often ridiculous, ''Promise" is a road-show version of movies like ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and ''House of Flying Daggers." Along with ''Dagger," it suggests that talented Chinese directors are being led astray by the seductions of CGI and wirework fantasies.

It's best to take the film as a fairy tale, easy enough when the opening titles inform us the time is ''when the world was young" and the place ''a kingdom where gods and men lived side by side." A small girl survives a massacre of peasants and is offered a deal by Manshen (Hong Chen), goddess of anti-gravity hairdos: You can become a woman of great beauty and power but you'll lose all love until time runs backward. The girl accepts and the movie boots us ahead 20 years.

It's not like peace has suddenly broken out. The Army of the Crimson Armor, commanded by the proud warlord General Guangming (Japan's Hiroyuki Sanada, ''The Twilight Samurai"), is protecting the Emperor (Cheng Qian) from the invading army of Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse). Wuhuan is young, sadistic, and given to tasteful white uniforms, and he's less interested in empire-building than in capturing the Emperor's ward, Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung), that long-ago little girl now grown into a willowy spitfire.

Wuhuan's army surrounds the Imperial Palace -- it looks like the Forbidden City gone fractal -- and the general races to the rescue accompanied by his slave Kunlun (Korean matinee idol Jang Dong-Gun). The villain's hired assassin, Snow Wolf (Ye Liu), wounds the officer, who puts the slave into his armor and sends him on to take care of business. This Kunlun does and falls deeply in love with the princess. And she with him -- only she thinks he's the general.

The movie spins forward from there, with the plucky Cheung tugged first one way then the other, and choreographed fight scenes breaking out against vast backdrops every few minutes. (The able cinematography is by Peter Pau of ''Crouching Tiger.") Where a movie like ''House of Flying Daggers" or ''Kung Fu Hustle" gets you to willingly buy into its distortions of physical reality, though, ''The Promise" invites derision.

The blue-screen work is unconvincing, and, worse, the action scenes have the blurry jerkiness of something steeped too long in a digital bath. Kunlun, the handsome slave, has the power of super-speed -- apparently it's something in the water where his people live -- but the early sequence where he outraces a water buffalo stampede and the invading army just behind it looks perilously close to Super Mario.

Yet ''The Promise" has a daft sweep, and if you're in the mood for empty swordplay in baroque settings, purple dialogue delivered with straight faces, and romantic yearnings that never, ever resolve, ''The Promise" may be your cup of oolong. Everyone else, be advised: Time doesn't run backward in this movie, but you may wish it did.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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