Few things can be described as ''bigger than Harry Potter,'' but the latest epic from auteur Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) certainly qualifies. Centering on a wartime romance involving a gorgeous and enigmatic princess (Cecilia Cheung), a proud duke (Nicolas Tse), a courageous general (Hiroyuki Sanada), and a humble slave (Jang Dong-Gun) think of it as House of Crouching Heroes the $30 million movie, Chen says, ''is the biggest-budgeted film that's ever been made in China.'' The investment has already paid off: The Promise was the top-grossing movie at the Chinese box office last year, outpacing a certain young wizard. ''Compared with the American [movie] market, China's is still small,'' Chen says on the phone from Beijing. ''But we made $25 million here. That's like having a $200 million hit in the U.S.''
It was money well earned. The director spent most of 2004 shooting action sequences on Beijing soundstages and elsewhere around China with the help of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's cinematographer, Peter Pau, and production designer, Tom Yip. Then, he moved to Hong Kong for more than a year of postproduction work, fine-tuning approximately 1,000 effects shots, many of which simply involved erasing vast numbers of stunt wires from the screen. ''There's the love story, but there's also martial arts, fantasy, that kind of stuff it's a fantasy piece,'' Chen says of the lush fictional tale, which he also co-wrote. ''This story is from [Chinese] life itself. But I hope that because this is a love story, U.S. audiences can understand it as well it's a universal story.''