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A largely unnecessary prequel, though it isn't entirely without merit.
Almost twenty years after James Cameron's Titanic broke cineplexes with its combination of blockbuster spectacle and heartrending emotion, John Woo is hoping to do the same with The Crossing. Based on the real- life sinking of a Taiwan-bound steamer that claimed 1,500 lives (approximately the same number lost aboard the RMS Titanic), Woo's latest epic boasts three times the romance and, one would think, three times the heartbreak and drama. In theory, anyway. In actuality, splitting the movie into two means that there's no sign of the titular journey in this first installment of The Crossing - for that, you'll have to wait for the sequel, due in cinemas in May 2015. What you do get is plenty of occasionally soggy backstory for the film's three star-crossed couples, as they meet and fall in love against a backdrop of world and civil war.
In the midst of World War II, General Lei Yifang (Huang Xiaoming) bravely commands his troops against the Japanese, while signaller Tong Daqing (Tong Dawei) captures Yan Zekun (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a Taiwanese doctor conscripted into the Japanese army. When the war ends, each man finds love: Yifang marries heiress Zhou Yunfen (Song Hye-Kyo); Daqing forms an unexpected connection with nurse Yuzhen (Zhang Ziyi), a complete stranger who plays his wife in a family photo so he can get more rations; and Zekun pines after Noriko (Masami Nagasawa), his sweetheart who has since been repatriated to Japan. But their lives change again when the civil war erupts: suddenly, the men are called back into battle, to fight against people they fought with and for just a few years ago.
There's no denying it - at its worst, Woo's film plays like two hours of filler. It meanders in episodic bursts through the lives of these six characters, never quite making a convincing argument for its existence. We know it's meant to create emotional stakes for the sequel, but a great deal of the drama that unfolds in this film could be condensed by a canny screenwriter into a few minutes of narrative context.
It doesn't help that Woo doesn't fully deliver on either the military or the romantic aspects of the film. The opening battle feels like it was shot a few decades ago: the blood splatters are gory and unrealistic, while the action beats disappear amidst the carnage - the last thing you'd expect from a Woo movie. It recalls Michael Bay at his most boom-tastic, which isn't really a compliment. The relationships play out in stilted, somewhat soggy fashion, told as much through voice-over as actual interaction: a barefoot Yunfen somehow waltzes away with Yifang's heart, Zekun must hastily disguise his sketches of Noriko's eyes during an art class, and Daqing pays his fake wife in noodles that aren't salty enough for his taste.
And yet, this installment of The Crossing is not entirely without merit. Stick with it long enough, and some of its scattered episodes and ideas will prove more affecting than you'd expect. This comes primarily from Woo's surprisingly even-handed treatment of the civil war that breaks out within China: neither side is vilified; indeed, we're shown what happens when brothers-in-arms find themselves returning to war on opposite sides. There are moments of quiet comedy - three starving soldiers find a rabbit in the woods - and others of devastating betrayal, when true allegiances are revealed. For a big-budget release clearly targeting the Chinese market, it's interesting that Woo doesn't downplay that element of Taiwanese resistance, instead folding the people, their language and their strength into the film.
Woo's all-star cast is competent, but not quite strong enough to save The Crossing when it's determined to, well, sink. Zhang is blessed with the meatiest role. It may be predictable - poor, illiterate nurse struggles to earn enough money to buy a ticket to Taiwan to find her true love - but she imbues it with plenty of grit and desperation. Tong treads a fine line between comedy and tragedy as Daqing, shifting from comic relief to unexpected war hero as circumstances spin out of everyone's control.
The other actors fare less well. Kaneshiro and Nagasawa are little more than an afterthought, turning up briefly and thus far inconsequentially throughout the film, while Huang and Song are saddled with the most dismally boring of love stories. The former, so charming in other movies, has apparently decided to play his role with an arrogant sneer almost permanently stuck to his face, which can make for somewhat disconcerting viewing.
There are, of course, financial reasons galore for Woo to split his epic into two films. But are there any creative ones? It's possible to charitably grant him and his producers the benefit of the doubt - there's nothing wrong, per se, in dedicating an entire film to building up to an event that will only take place in the sequel. But it's hard to believe that box-office considerations didn't play a part when the final product is less hit than miss, a bundle of moments strung together with little subtlety and not enough care. The first installment in a franchise should leave you hungering for more - The Crossing, at best, creates a sense of mild but hardly overpowering curiosity about how everything will shake out.
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