'The Crossing: Part One' ('Tai Ping Lun: Shang Ji'): Film Review

John Woo returns with the first installment of an epic romance drama based on the real-life sinking of the Taiping steamer in the Taiwan Straits in 1949.

With a story based on a real-life maritime disaster – the 1949 sinking of the Taiping, a vessel carrying more than 1,000 passengers when it capsized in the Taiwan Straits – The Crossing has been billed as the "Chinese Titanic" ever since director John Woo unveiled the project to much fanfare in Cannes in 2008.

Not that one gets to see that much waving and drowning in the high seas in this first entry of John Woo's two-parter: it's only towards the end of this two-hour-plus film that the viewer gets to see some desperately drenched passengers along with text saying how most of the main characters will be on that ill-fated vessel. The scene serves as a trailer of sorts for the second installment slated for release in May.

Belying a Chinese title literally alluding to the name of the doomed liner, The Crossing: Part One – which opened in China on Dec. 2 before making its international bow at the Singapore International Film Festival on Dec. 4 – has nearly nothing to do with the catastrophe. Rather, Woo whets the viewer's appetite for more by presenting an origin story introducing the historical background and (fictional) characters central to the tragedy.

And beyond its many disparate components, Part One is at its heart (and its most effective) a standalone war film, its central thread being the tribulations of Nationalist Army general Lei Yifang (Huang Xiaoming) and private Tong Daqing (Tong Dawei) as they face an imminent, certain defeat by the Red Army during the Chinese Civil War.

Thus, Woo has – at least for this installment – played to his own male-bonding forte, complete with his visual signatures of flying doves, last-chance-saloon standoffs and guns pointed at heads.

Here, he places the focus on Lei and Tong contemplating their imminent defeat and downfall as they converse with each other and also with their enemies. It's perhaps telling that Lei's exchanges with Tong, his loyal lieutenants and his communist adversaries sizzle with more tension and emotion than his interaction with his wife Zhou Yufen (Korean actress Song Hye-kyo).

In fact, it's as if their relationship is just sketchily accounted for, with their courtship and marriage wrapped up in less than 10 minutes of screen time. It's as if their relationship is only present as a pre-requisite (so as to give Zhou a loved one to yearn for as she begins her life in exile in Taiwan) and also a melodramatic device aimed at providing the hero (and Huang, as one of China's premier heartthrobs) with a winning, sentimental edge.

For Part One, therefore, everything beyond the crackling battle scenes has much less narrative traction. Characters who might be taking center stage in the sinking in Part Two are only cursorily introduced into the proceedings. Always fascinated with building his films on a male triumvirate, Woo's third man here is Yen Zekun (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a Taiwanese doctor settling down to normal life in his hometown after years as a forcibly drafted field medic in the Japanese army during WWII. Perhaps a little more than conveniently, he meets Zhou, who has moved into the house once occupied by his Japanese paramour Masako (Magami Nagasawa) – a friendship anchored by their shared longing for a distant beloved.

Meanwhile, back in Shanghai is Yu Zhen (Zhang Ziyi), an illiterate young woman who came into the equation when Tong pays her to have a photograph taken together as a couple as a proof of marriage, which would provide his family back home with more food rations. This financial exchange is a harbinger of Yu's unraveling existence, as unforgiving circumstances eventually force her to go into the skin trade so as to secure enough money to travel to Taiwan with hope of finding her missing lover. Of course, Yu is a prostitute with a heart of gold: soft-spoken and incredibly photogenic given her precarious financial situation, she also spends her daytime as a volunteer nurse caring for injured soldiers, which provides more opportunities for histrionic depictions of the brutalities of war.

With most of the film dedicated to depictions of war and its discontents, Part One struggles to present a full-fledged and flowing multi-linear narrative covering all these characters spread miles apart in terms of geography, culture and class – not to mention the issues their interactions bring about, such as Taiwan's post-WWII identity crisis (seen through Yan's recollections of his much-criticized relationship with a Japanese woman, or Zhou's family trying to acclimatize and fit in with the local population).

Then again, the film is certainly a riveting visual spectacle, what with its macho men and porcelain-beauty women plodding along to their tragic fates amidst Horace Ma's remarkable production design, all unfolding in splendor – in peace and war – through Zhao Fei's camera work. (The film is also released in a competent converted-to-3D version in mainland China.)

Given how most of this film is merely backgrounder for the catastrophe to follow in the next film, however, one wonders how much of this would be left if Woo is to (very likely) repeat his Red Cliff approach by abridging the two-parter into a single feature for international release. Never mind, that, however: Part One's star power (and firepower) would certainly be enough to give Woo a winner at the Chinese and Asian box office, which would put the film(s) in good stead for a run in festivals (in Berlin or Cannes) and markets abroad.