Like passengers who overpaid for tickets to escape war-ravaged Shanghai on the Taiwan-bound liner Taiping in 1949, only to end up on a sinking ship, audiences get a pretty lousy deal with John Woo’s “The Crossing II,” an inert follow-up that doesn’t deliver enough visual or emotional payoff in its overdue yet short-lived shipwreck climax. Released eight months after the first film opened in December, the pic features no intriguing new turns and has nothing meaningful to say, indisputably proving that the production would have been better off trimmed and presented as one film. Considering how “The Crossing” tanked at the box office worldwide, it’s unrealistic to expect a huge B.O. turnaround here, though an older demographic may still give it a chance.
Originally written by Wang Hui-ling (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Lust, Caution”) and later doctored by Su Chao-pin, Chen Ching-hui and Woo (all credited as writers), the screenplay has some intrinsic defects that only become more obvious here. Two-thirds of the 114-minute film are padded with rehashed scenes, with a smattering of new content woven in. The effect is a severe case of deja vu for those who’ve seen the first film and a sense of elliptical obtuseness for those who haven’t. Disparate characters who are supposed to come together on the ship do so in an only functional way, without generating strong emotional currents. In fact, their crucial moments are spent bobbing or flailing about in water, an apt metaphor for the floundering storyline.
The first installment culminated with the Kuomintang’s defeat at the decisive Huaihai Battle in 1948, spelling the beginning of the end of its rule over China, then concluded with screen titles naming characters who would eventually make the fateful voyage on the Taiping. The sequel opens with a quick voiceover run-through of how, on Jan. 27, 1949, after setting sail from Shanghai for the Taiwanese port city of Keelung on the eve of Chinese New Year, the liner sank after colliding with the freight ship Chian Yuan near Chou Shan Archipelego — a disaster that claimed nearly 1,000 lives and left about 50 survivors.
The yarn then shifts back to 1948, replaying scenes from part one. At first, this looks like a quick recap to reacquaint viewers with key plot points and characters, but after 30 minutes, it dawns on us that we are being saddled with the same film we’ve sat through once already, except that the familiar scenes have been stretched out even longer with some new material tacked on, little of which enriches the characters or raises the dramatic stakes.
Of some significance are new details on the family background of Taiwanese doctor Yan Zekun (Takeshi Kaneshiro), relating how his father and elder brother’s assertion of their Chinese identity caused only grief in times of violent historical transition. Yet a comparison with Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Good Men, Good Women,” which encapsulated the pain of having one’s political ideals betrayed, instantly shows up the film’s shallow understanding of the milieu.
Zekun’s youngest brother, Zeming (Tony Yang Yo-ning), emerges as a leftist student activist, triggering events that puts Zekun back on the deck of the Taiping. Beyond that, however, Zeming is just another stock character bolstering the communists’ impending victory. Zekun’s role is allowed enough humanity to make him more than a mere ideological signpost, but he depicted as too much of a Boy Scout — stoical toward his family, undyingly faithful to his lover, altruistic to the sick or injured. While the first film at least featured some idyllic love scenes with his childhood sweetheart Masako (Masami Nagasawa) set against the lush nostalgic colonial backdrop, here, the characters have no physical encounter, while visions of her half-submerged are risibly surreal.
As Yu Zhen, a nurse desperate to get on the Taiping to find her soldier lover, Zhang Ziyi gave the interlocking relationships heart and helped drive momentum in the first “Crossing.” There’s not much more she can do to embellish her original performance here, since she’s still struggling to get a ticket, even resorting to sell her body to do so. (But wait, she already did that in part one!) Still, she animates the film with her strong will, especially in later scenes when Yu’s resilience provides a positive outlook on the bleak experience.
Yu’s reunion with foot soldier Tong Daqing (Tong Dawei, “American Dreams in China,” “Hollywood Adventures”), an anticipated development in the story, does add some emotional heft. However, Tong, who cultivated the most simpatico persona in the previous installment as an Everyman figure, is so heavily bandaged for most of his voyage, it’s like watching a mummy trying to emote.
Although the tragedy was not widely known or written about, Chang Tien-wan’s book “Taiping Lun 1949,” published in 2014, offered detailed, well-researched chronicles through interviews with survivors and their descendants. As the book revealed, the disaster was the result of multiple factors that reflected the desperation of the times: They sailed in darkness to evade the curfew; the sheer number of passengers bribing their way onboard caused the ship to exceed its capacity, as did its cargo, which included everything from Central Bank gold bars and classified documents belonging to the nationalist government to steel and printing paper. This is the stuff of real historical interest as well as timeless human drama, but the film, without officially citing Chang’s book as a source, covers the facts but in a mechanical, unengaging manner.
Perhaps due to budgetary restraints, the climax feels very rushed; it’s already 85 minutes in when everyone boards the ship, and while the finale of part one afforded a glimpse of the Taiping in its full glory, most of the action here is set among cramped berths in steerage, with just passing shots of the upper deck. There’s not much room for human interaction before the collision — a spectacle that seems to last for a split second. The visual effects are generally convincing, especially in the water, but the color grading of key scenes is too murky.
More tension could have been generated during the period before anyone realizes they’re in trouble; the subsequent scenes of rescue attempts and mass panic are not especially moving. There’s even a generic feel to the family saga of Yu’s landlady and her husband, Capt. Gu (Wang Qianyuan), which is suddenly given screen time because, hey, all disaster films need endangered tykes.
Tech credits are well appointed (the 3D conversion looks fine), with Horace Ma’s classy production design upholding the first film’s elegant period look. Taro Iwashiro’s score, which sounded too grandiloquent and sentimental in the first half, now serves primarily to keep audiences awake. Giddy montages provide a sense of activity and energy, but also make the already disparate plot strands feel even more jumbled; not aiding matters is David Wu’s editing, which has too many pacing lulls to generate excitement, yet rushes through the climax.
The Chinese titles mean “The Taiping: The Other Shore.”