It’s been five years since the release of Red Cliff – Part 2 and director John Woo is back with the first film of another two-part historical epic, albeit one of a different stripe. It is 1945 and Chinese general Lei Yi Fang (Huang) defeats the Japanese troops, resulting in the capture of Yan Ze Kun (Kaneshiro), a Taiwanese doctor working for the Japanese army. Lei falls in love with Zhou Yun Fen (Song), who comes from a wealthy Shanghainese family. After Yan is released from the prisoner-of-war camp, he discovers his girlfriend Masako (Nagasawa) has been repatriated back to Japan. In 1948, as the Chinese Revolution begins to take shape, Lei is thrown back into the thick of battle. In the meantime, signaller Tong Daqing (Tong) has a chance encounter with volunteer nurse Yu Zhen (Zhang), with whom he is immediately smitten. Unbeknownst to him, Yu Zhen has to moonlight as a prostitute in order to make ends meet. We follow these three couples as their paths converge, leading them to the Taiping, a Chinese steamer bound for Taiwan, a last ray of hope as the Revolution heats up.
Everyone has been referring to this film as the Chinese equivalent of Titanic. Well, that will have to wait until Part 2. First, we have to sit through what can be described as the Chinese equivalent of Pearl Harbour, a big, tragic wartime romance. Just as Michael Bay, a filmmaker known for bombastic action films, struggled with the hokey romance in Pearl Harbour, John Woo seems to have difficulty reconciling the tender love stories with the battlefield carnage in The Crossing – Part 1. The film lurches awkwardly from bodies being blasted apart in combat to lovers casting longing glances at each other, without ever really gelling. This is a decidedly unsubtle film and to call it “overwrought” would be an understatement. Every last wartime romance cliché in the book is flung into Wang Hui-ling’s screenplay – there’s even a “wife writes a love letter as we cut to the husband caught in battle” scene. This isn’t just cheesy, it’s cheese that’s set on fire and one can almost hear director Woo exclaiming “Saganaki!” in the background.
Yes, this can be called “lush”, with faithful period recreations of post-war Shanghai and explosive battle scenes, but the beautiful cinematography by Zhao Fei is undercut by stilted editing and transitions, not to mention gobs of slow-motion even where it’s plainly unnecessary. The film’s pacing suffers in places and it is often painfully obvious that things are being padded out so the story can be split into two films. This is a war movie that features a subplot in which a woman struggles to compose a song for her husband. While it is evident that this is a big-budget production (by Mainland Chinese film standards), there are lapses in production values such as some unconvincing digital seagulls. We saw the 2D version but even then, a moment in which a tank hatch hurtles straight at the audience is embarrassingly gimmicky. If you have a thing for trucks flipping over as they explode, then the climactic battle between the Nationalists and Communists will leave you satisfied.
The three male leads are appealingly charming in their own ways. Huang Xiaoming is classically heroic and dashing, Takeshi Kaneshiro has the sexy/vulnerable thing down pat and Tong Dawei’s goofy earnestness does provide welcome respite from the heaviness of the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the female characters are somewhat side-lined and mostly relegated to the role of “pining for significant other while he is out at war”. Of the women in the film, Zhang Ziyi has the most significant role, paring down her usual glamour to play the poor, illiterate Yu Zhen. Of the three central relationships, that between Tong Daqing and Yu Zhen is the most interesting – having never met before, Daqing takes a phony “family photo” with Yu Zhen and a random baby so he can be granted extra rations. It’s a shame that Lei Yi Fang and Zhou Yun Feng’s love story is downright dreary in comparison.
The Crossing – Part 1 is a better war movie than it is a sweeping romance, and even then it isn’t an outstanding war movie at all. Constructed as a crowd-pleasing historical epic, the film’s transitions from brutal war violence to soppy sentimentality are jarring to say the least. John Woo is in his element for less than half the time here and at least there’s an all-star cast to enact all the shop-worn tropes. Here’s hoping Part 2, centred on the sinking of the Taiping itself, is more focused.
Summary: The Crossing – Part 1 is unsuccessful at being a passionate romantic epic and fares only slightly better as an explosive war movie. Also, you’ll have to wait until May 2015 for any actual “crossing” to happen.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars