The first of a two-part disaster epic depicting a 1949 shipwreck that’s been nicknamed “the Chinese Titanic,” John Woo’s “The Crossing: Part 1″ is a handsomely mounted but tortuous two-hour buildup to the main act. Crisscrossed with romantic trials and survival stories during the Chinese Civil War, the film holds considerable cultural interest, yet its plotlines are too dispersed to achieve either historical insight or human depth, losing emotional traction in favor of bombastic war spectacle. Woo’s ambitions of sculpting an imposing visual monument to the Chinese diaspora will presumably be realized in “Part 2”; still, given its starry international cast and grandiose scale, this 3D-converted blockbuster can dock safely in Asian markets. Auds should also duly come onboard for the second installment when it bows in May 2015.
On Jan. 27, 1949, the luxury liner Taiping sank after colliding with a cargo ship near Taiwan’s Chou Shan Archipelago; only about 50 of the 1,000-plus passengers survived. As Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) closed in on the Nationalist government, the ship had made frequent trips between Shanghai and Keelung in eastern Taiwan, serving as one of the last lifeboats to freedom from communist rule.
The idea of “The Crossing” was conceived by Taiwanese scribe Wang Hui-ling, who allegedly envisioned an omnibus film charting the tragic loves of three couples on board the Taiping. While her most high-profile works (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Lust, Caution”) were adapted from literary masterpieces, this is an entirely original creation, and her control over the material is shakier. (She shares scripting credit with Su Chao-pin, Chen Ching-hui and Woo.) The project also sees Woo stepping out of his action-oriented comfort zone to depict drama and romance, and while the helmer does a solid job of keeping so many tumultuous scenes running at a smooth clip, the end of “Part 1” does not take one’s breath away as the midway cliffhanger of “Red Cliff” managed to do.
In contrast with the Titanic, which sailed for four days before hitting the iceberg, Taiping’s final voyage lasted just a few hours. This presents a challenge in terms of weaving the protagonists’ backstories into such a short time span, as the use of multiple or extended flashbacks could have seriously diluted tension. The film’s solution is to use “Part 1” to fully acquaint audiences with all key figures before they converge in “Part 2,” and although the plot contrivances are often too banal to make audiences feel deeply for the characters, the tight cutting by Woo’s longtime editor, David Wu, at least keeps all the complicated strands distinct.
The film kicks off in Hollywood epic fashion with a bloody clash between Nationalist (KMT) troops and the Japanese Imperial Army on China’s eastern front in 1945. Three men converge at the same point, but they remain unaware of how their paths will cross significantly in future.
Gen. Lei Yifang (Huang Xiaoming, “American Dreams in China”) returns to Shanghai highly decorated, and swiftly wins the hand of wealthy debutante Yunfen (South Korean actress Song Hye-kyo, “The Grandmaster”). Taiwanese doctor Yan Zekun (Takeshi Kaneshiro), drafted to China as a medic for the Imperial Army, dreams of reuniting with his Japanese sweetheart, Masako (Masami Nagasawa), in their hometown of Keelung.
While stationed in Shanghai, Pvt. Tong Daqing (Tong Dawei, “American Dreams in China”) strikes up a brief friendship with single woman Yu Zhen (Zhang Ziyi) before he’s dispatched to the eastern front again, this time to fight the PLA. Hardship and monotony make Tong fantasize about Yu, but she herself is desperately raising money to get on the Taiping in order to continue an elusive fling.
As these romances unfold, Woo attempts to show the connections between individual fortunes and the nation’s, with uneven results. One of the screenplay’s chief structural flaws is that characters are kept apart for too long, forcing them to express their feelings through letters and diaries; the voiceover readings, while true to the era, have a ponderous feel, and can’t beat the immediacy or intensity of face-to-face encounters.
This is especially so with Lei and Yunfen’s courtship, which is devised to evoke the high-society opulence of the era. Once Yunfen relocates to Taiwan, she’s merely a dramatic device for Yan to recount his relationship with Masako. Song’s bland acting, dubbed dialogue and inability to blend in with the rest of the cast make her the weakest link in this interlocking chain; by contrast, Nagasawa’s coy beauty is a breath of fresh air: Masako’s high-school crush on Yan, unfurled against the charming setting of colonial Taiwan, has a dreamy, idyllic air.
The later part of the story shifts gears to recount the Huaihai War, the second of three decisive military campaigns that resulted in the KMT’s crushing defeat. It’s quite radical for a mainland film not to demonize any Nationalist officer as corrupt and egregious, and Lei’s upright, patriotic image is a rarity. Nevertheless, the film’s angle remains a propagandistic one, accentuating the grueling struggles and demoralization of Yan’s regiment in order to expose the selfishness and incompetence of the top KMT brass.
Though Yu is a conventional damsel in distress, Zhang still invests her with tremendous spirit, her glowing presence compelling one to care about her character’s unpredictable fate. Thrust into a pivotal historical role, yet somehow sidelined by not being a passenger on the ship, Huang is too keen to show off his dandy appeal, at the expense of gravitas; Lei’s courtship of the virginal Yunfen feels more like a seduction than true love.
Japanese-Taiwanese actor Kaneshiro is perfectly cast as Yan, effortlessly entering Yan’s cultural milieu, and switching among Taiwanese, Mandarin and Japanese with ease. His understated performance has an unruffled poise; it’s a shame, then, that the film doesn’t explore the complexity of Yan’s national identity. Tong turns in the film’s meatiest performance, building a character arc that gains in insight and maturity through harrowing experience.
While the 3D effects discreetly add depth and glow to the dramatic scenes, they sometimes look stilted in the battle sequences, which are effectively choreographed but don’t push the envelop in terms of military maneuvers. Lensing by Zhao Fei gives the Shanghai- and Taiwan-set scenes a full-bodied, painterly texture, while Hong Kong production designer Horace Ma’s sets contrast the vanity and chaos of the gilded Chinese metropolis with the simple yet well-ordered lifestyle of a Japanese colony. The measured score by Iwashiro Taro slips in wistful or elegiac notes at suitable moments, but the orchestral music becomes heavily portentous during the battles. The production has enlisted an army of visual-effects studios, whose contributions are only seen in a teasing but glorious glimpse of the Taiping.