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Review: The Crossing: Part 1 (2014)

The Crossing: Part 1

太平轮  乱世浮生

Hong Kong/China, 2014, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D (China only), 128 mins.

Directed by Wu Yusen 吴宇森 [John Woo].

Rating: 6/10.

First chunk of the big-budget Chinese Civil War disaster drama is holed by a TV-like script.

crossing1hkSTORY

East China, Jul 1945. After heroic action against the Japanese, Lei Yifang (Huang Xiaoming), an officer in the Nationalist (KMT) Army who’s nicknamed “Crazy Lei”, is decorated and promoted to a two-star general. In the same battle was his old friend, officer Liu Zhiqing (Yu Zhen); Tong Daqing (Tong Dawei), a young private from the northeast in the communications unit; and Yan Zekun (Kaneshiro Takeshi), a doctor from Jilong [Keelung], in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, who had been co-opted as a medic into the Japanese army. Shanghai, early winter 1947. Following the end of the Sino-Japanese War, China is now engaged in a civil war between Nationalists and Communists. At a military hospital in District 22, Yu Zhen (Zhang Ziyi), an illiterate woman from the northeast, does volunteer care work while still searching for her husband, Yang Tianhu (Huang Bojun), who was in the Nationalist Army. Elsewhere in the city, at a charity ball, Lei Yifang crosses eyes with banker’s crossingpart1daughter Zhou Yunfen (Song Hye-gyo); after a rapid courtship, they marry. In late spring 1948, on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, Tong Daqing meets the penniless Yu Zhen for an arranged photo session in which they pose as man and wife, with a borrowed baby; afterwards he falls for her before going off to the front. Also using the same photographer’s studio that day is Yan Zekun, who’s leaving for Taiwan in two days’ time on the steamer Taiping 太平 and wants a photo-shopped picture made of him and a Japanese girl, Shimura Masako (Nagasawa Masami), with whom he was in love back in Jilong during colonial days. At the hospital, an old colleague tells Yu Zhen that many wounded have already been sent to Taiwan; she tries to buy a ticket on the Taiping but can’t find a job to pay for one, and ends up being thrown out of her lodgings. Meanwhile, Zhou Yunfen, now pregnant, has unwillingly agreed to leave Lei Yifang and go ahead to safety in Taiwan along with her family. She leaves on the same sailing as Yan Zekun. In Jilong, Yan Zekun is reunited with his family, though his mother (Yang Guimei) has burnt all the letters from Shimura Masako, whom she disapproved of and who has since been repatriated to Japan. Zhou Yunfen and her family settle into a comfortable house in the countryside. In Shanghai, Yu Zhen manages to find lodgings in the house of Mrs. Gu (Yu Feihong), the sympathetic wife of a Nationalist Army officer (Wang Qianyuan). A friend from the same village, Xia Shan (Qin Hailu), offers to help Yu Zhen get a job in a dance hall; but a riot breaks out when the dance hall is closed by the city government, and Yu Zhen is forced to become a streetwalker. In Taiwan, Yan Zekun gets to know Zhou Yunfen when he treats her for an injury, and the two bond over being separated from their loved ones. Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, in winter, where the civil war is going badly for the starving Nationalist Army, Lei Yifang gets to know Tong Daqing. When Lei Yifang receives a delegation from the PLA, he finds its leader is his old friend Liu Zhiqing. The latter tries to persuade Lei Yifang to surrender rather than lose lives in a battle he can never win.

REVIEW

Compared with Red Cliff 赤壁 (2008), the previous two-parter by Hong Kong director Wu Yusen 吴宇森 [John Woo], The Crossing: Part 1 太平轮  乱世浮生 asks a lot of its audience. Based on the true-life story of a steamer that sank with all hands in Jan 1949, while taking Civil War refugees from Shanghai to Taiwan, Wu’s latest epic still hasn’t left dock by the close of its first two hours. Where the first chunk of Red Cliff offered strong characters, muscular politics and several jaw-dropping battles – plus a cliff-hanging finale that left the viewer gagging for the sequel – The Crossing: Part 1 offers characters straight out of an average TV drama, almost zero political conflict and a couple of Civil War battles that are well-staged but hardly push the envelope. An end trailer for The Crossing II 太平轮  彼岸 (2015)  includes clips of the forthcoming disaster but, with the characters not even boarded and one main role already history, the six-month wait doesn’t look to be as nail-biting as that for the second half of Red Cliff.

Though it’s impossible at this stage to judge the overall outcome, the whole enterprise may well have worked better with the two parts released only a few weeks apart, like Taiwan’s period war drama Warriors of the Rainbow 赛德克•巴莱 (2011), of which Wu, coincidentally, was one of the producers. There may even prove to have been a case for making just a single, two-and-a-half-hour movie: where Red Cliff, due to its greater dramatic compexity, failed in its shorter “international version”, The Crossing could well work better cut back to the bone. As the story is spun out between some half-a-dozen characters, including a Japanese woman who only seems to be there for distribution reasons, there’s a feeling that the two-part structure is more a commercial decision rather than one inherently driven by the content. If the characters were more involving, the dialogue not so functional and the doomed steamer had at least left its moorings, Part 1 could still have worked. As it stands, it leaves no wash behind it, and is simply not worthy of the considerable talent involved, both behind and in front of the camera.

The Taiping sank when it collided in the darkness with a cargo boat just off the coast of China, only a couple of hours into its journey south to Taiwan, 378 nautical miles away. Dubbed the “Chinese Titanic”, the boat in fact had few similarities to the famous luxury liner: the 29-year-old, US-made steamer was considerably smaller, was overloaded with at least twice the number of 500-or-so passengers it was rated for, and had made many other sailings on the same route, taking Nationalists and other refugees to the “safety” of Taiwan as the Communists looked like winning the Civil War. Given the short time before it sank, there wouldn’t be much opportunity to develop any characters in a straightforward screenplay, except through copious flashbacks; but the decision to keep Part 1 wholly land-based, spread over three-and-a-half years, and even to kill off one main character, is still seriously flawed.

The original script is credited to Taiwan writer Wang Huiling, who co-wrote three Li Ang [Ang Lee] films – Eat Drink Man Woman 饮食男女 (1994), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 卧虎藏龙 (2000) and Lust, Caution 色,戒(2007) – as well as the lame Fleeing by Night 夜奔 (1999) and iffy Cheng Long [Jackie Chan] vehicle The Myth 神话 (2005). The considerably altered final script is credited to Wu and Taiwan’s Chen Jinghui 陈静慧 (kids’ drama Colorful Mind 孩子的天空, 2008) and Su Zhaobin 苏照彬. Su’s expertise as both a writer and director, shown in The Cabbie 运转手之恋 (2000), Better than Sex 爱情灵药 (2001) and Reign of Assassins 剑雨 (2010), as well as in small-screen work, hardly shines through here: the dialogue is utilitarian TV drama stuff, simply to drive the plot, and there’s very little emotional resonance built up between the widely dispersed characters (in Shanghai, Taiwan and China’s Eastern Front), with copious letter-writing and cutting back and forth.

The de facto leading character – a charismatic Nationalist general, played eyes-blazing by Mainland star Huang Xiaoming (American Dreams in China 中国合伙人, 2013) – does finally build some empathy as he faces tough decisions on the battlefield. Till then, his romance and marriage to a banker’s daughter (South Korea’s Song Hye-gyo 송혜교 | 宋慧乔, acceptably re-voiced and livelier here than in The Grandmaster 一代宗师, 2013) have been cut-and-paste cliches, and his most affecting moment been when he shot his horse for food. Top-billed Zhang Ziyi 章子怡, as an illiterate country girl penniless in Shanghai, is low-wattage throughout, maybe in an attempt to play down her natural intelligence, and her storyline is also built out of melodrama cliches. Second-billed Kaneshiro Takeshi 金城武 slides effortlessly between Mandarin, Hokkien and Japanese dialogue but is stuck in a soppy role as a doctor that mostly has him pining for his absent Japanese love (Nagasawa Masami 长泽雅美, seen only in cute flashbacks). Apart from Huang, it’s Tong Dawei 佟大为 (Great Wall My Love 追爱, 2011; American Dreams in China; Dearest 亲爱的, 2014) who etches the only other engaging character – and like Huang’s, one which grows throughout the film – as a young signals officer who becomes enamoured of Zhang’s country girl.

Tong shares one of the movie’s best scenes – a late-on confrontation in a snowy forest that resolves itself in a charmingly unexpected (and touching) way. More scenes of that quality are desperately needed, but only one other – a subsequent meeting between Huang’s general and an old friend who’s switched sides – has similar emotional heft. Between times, a host of faces pop up here and there among the large cast – Taiwan’s Yang Guimei 杨贵媚 and Gao Jie 高捷 [Jack Kao] as the doctor’s family, China’s Qin Hailu 秦海璐 as a dance-hall hostess, Hong Kong’s Lin Baoyi 林保怡 [Bowie Lam] as an oily suitor of Song’s character – but to passing effect.

Like the cast, technical credits are also way superior to the script. Second-unit direction of the battle scenes is impressively gritty by Hong Kong’s Liang Baijian 梁柏坚 [Patrick Leung] (a longtime Wu associate, who did the naval battle in Red Cliff) and action ace Luo Lixian 罗礼贤 [Bruce Law], and main-unit photography by veteran d.p. Zhao Fei 赵非 (The Emperor and the Assassin 荆轲刺秦王, 1998; Let the Bullets Fly 让子弹飞, 2010) looks consistently fine in varied locations. The period production and costume design have a back-lot, TV drama look in the Shanghai scenes and only gain some flavour in the battlefield sequences. Music by Japan’s Iwashiro Taro 岩代太郎 (Red Cliff) is big and soupy.

For a film that’s essentially about anti-Communists fleeing to Taiwan on a steamship, The Crossing: Part 1 is notable, as a China-funded production, for its sympathetic portrayal of Nationalist soldiers and the absence of the usual KMT sleazebags. Nonetheless, Huang’s Nationalist general, though loyal, is portrayed as apolitical and shown to have doubts by the end. Only late-on is the Communist PLA even shown on screen, and then in a non-propagandistic way.

[The original Hong Kong title means “Steamship Taiping: Floating Lives in Troubled Times”. In China, where the film was released first, the title was just 太平轮  上集 (“Steamship Taiping: Part One”).]

CREDITS

Presented by Beijing Galloping Horse Film (CN), Le Vision Pictures (CN), China Film (CN), Huayi Brothers Media (CN), Yoozoo Entertainment (CN), Beijing Cultural & Creative Industry Investment Fund Management (CN), Dongyang Mighty Allies Movie & Culture (CN), Huace Pictures (Tianjin) (CN), Beijing Phenom Films (CN), China Movie Channel (CN), Galloping Horse Culture & Media (CN). Produced by Lion Rock Productions (HK).

Script: Wu Yusen [John Woo], Su Zhaobin, Chen Jinghui. Original script: Wang Huiling. Photography: Zhao Fei. Editing: Hu Dawei [David Wu]. Additional editing: Yang Hongyu. Music: Iwashiro Taro. Production design: Ma Guangrong [Horace Ma]. Costume design: Chen Tongxun. Sound: Du Duzhi. Action: Sang Lin. Special effects: Luo Lixian [Bruce Law]. Visual effects: Chris Morley (Tippett Studio), Zhuang Yan (Technicolor Beijing), Yang Zhi (Simage VFX). 3-D: Cui Xiaoyu (Cubic). Second unit direction: Liang Baijian [Patrick Leung], Luo Lixian [Bruce Law]. Second unit photography: Shi Luan, Xie Ze.

Cast: Zhang Ziyi (Yu Zhen), Kaneshiro Takeshi (Yan Zekun, doctor), Song Hye-gyo (Zhou Yunfen), Huang Xiaoming (Lei Yifang, general), Tong Dawei (Tong Daqing, army captain), Nagasawa Masami (Shimura Masako), Qin Hailu (Xia Shan), Yu Feihong (Mrs. Gu, Yu Zhen’s landlady), Yang Youning (Yan Zeming, Yan Zekun’s younger brother), Yang Guimei (Yan Zekun’s mother), Cong Shan (Yuan Shenglan, Zhou Yunfen’s mother), Wu Feixia [Angeles Woo] (Meifang), Yu Zhen (Liu Zhiqing), Wang Qianyuan (Gu, major), Lin Baoyi [Bowie Lam] (Peter Yuan, Zhou Yunfen’s cousin), Lin Meixiu (Man, Zhou family’s Taiwan servant), Gao Jie [Jack Kao] (Yan Cangmeng, Yan Zekun’s uncle), Huang Baijun [Denny Huang] (Yang Tianhu), Kou Jiarui (Egg), Xu Huanhuan (Zhou Qingyun, Zhou Yunfen’s elder sister), Zhang Guoqing (Guo), You Yong (Wu Bozhao), Liu Yiwei (Yu Zhen’s first client), Hu Xiaoguang (PLA general), Hou Yong (Du, general), Yi Zheng (Yan Zehan, Yan Zekun’s elder brother), Li Wei (Liu, wounded soldier), Gao Feng (Doggy), Zhai Tianlin (photographer), Yan Feng (ballroom MC), Xian Seli, Tang Jingmei, Qian Didi (dance-hall girls), Miura Kenichi (Japanese general), Fang Qingzhuo (Mrs. Qian), Shu Yaoxuan (Li, factory manager), Qian Bo (Dong), Li Wenbo (Qian Lechang), Kuroki Hitomi (Masako’s mother), Kou Shixun (Zhou Zhongding, Zhou Yunfen’s father), Kuroki Shinji (Japanese soldier), Qian Lei (Japanese soldier), Chen Shan, Jia Xun, Liu Qing (decorated soldiers), Wang Lan (supervising nurse), Jiang Tong (nurse), Zhou Bing (orphanage director), Wan Yuan, Rao Ying, Chen Cheng (female students), Yang Xiao, Han Yuchen, Sun Yi, Yu Jia (Tong Daqing’s army comrades), Zhang Jie (landlady), Xu Dongsheng (Jilong customs officer), Niu Chunlong [Anne Woo] (neighbour), Wang Yuyang (Meifang’s son), Jiang Yinsheng (Ningning), Jiang Siqi (An’an), Wang Yaqin (Gu family’s nanny), Zhou Haodong (Nationalist Army major-general), Zong Xiaojun (dance-hall manager), Li Pinfeng (officer), Bai Wei (Li Jun), Chen Zhusheng (neighbour in Jilong), Yu Bo (army captain), Linda Li (fish shop owner), Fu Chong (hairdresser), Sun Lufei (hairdressing customer), Du Xudong (Yu Zhen’s second client), Li Xinmin (peasant leader), Hao Miao, Wu Xiaoran (PLA announcers), Wang Deli (hungry PLA soldier), Xu Xiaohang (108 Division sergeant-major), Li Mingchen (PLA soldier), Shen Huifen (Mrs. Li, factory manager’s wife), Xu Dajun (flute-playing soldier), Zhang Jiaze (Yan Zekun’s father), Li Guangfu.

Release: China, 2 Dec 2014; Hong Kong, 25 Dec 2014.

(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 22 Jan 2015. Read the review of The Crossing II here: http://sino-cinema.com/2015/11/29/review-the-crossing-ii/.)