John Woo’s attempt at a ‘Titanic’-scaled epic founders completely in its misbegotten second half.
John Woo’s The Crossing II (Titanic Dong Phuong 2) concludes with the sinking of both a boat and an expensive two-part franchise. Sad to say, Crossing I and its multitude of unfinished romances were a flop, leaving the sequel to close things out as a matter of necessity rather than demand. Audience apathy aside. The Crossing II suffers because it served up its most explosive ending in Part 1, with General Lei (Huang Xiaoming) and his Nationalist forces meeting their Waterloo at the climax of the pivotal Huahai Campaign.
Besides being bombastic, that climax was better because it brought the story of General Lei to a fitting close; a man’s integrity and resolve were tested, and in defeat he still held honor and love as his guiding principles. Wow, what a dude! The journey of a prototypical John Woo hero was partially what made the first Crossing entertaining. It’s more than a little sad that he died at the end of Part I. Can his five super-beautiful co-stars carry Crossing II in his stead?
Well, they do try, starting with Takeshi Kaneshiro, who receives much more screentime in Crossing II than in Part 1. Having regained memories of his first love Masako (the underused Masami Nagasawa). Yan Zekun (Kaneshiro) recalls even more when he revisits Masako’s old home in Keelung. Taiwan, now occupied by General Lei’s wife Yunfen (Song Hye-Kyo). The added revelations depress him further and afterwards he passively returns to his life. Zekun has more going on than we thought; the second of three brothers, Zekun lost his elder brother at the hands of corrupt Nationalist police, while his younger brother Zeming (Tony Yang) is a card-carrying communist who wishes to join his fellow student protesters in Shanghai.
Meanwhile, Zekun’s mother frowns upon Zekun’s attachment to Masako. A point driven home when we saw her burning Masako’s letters during Part 1. And wants Zekun to marry his widowed half-sister (Angeles Woo). Stuck between passion and duty, Zekun just sits around morosely, showing his discontent through Takeshi Kaneshiro’s perpetually unhappy expressions.
Meanwhile, the pregnant Yunfen gets word that General Lei has perished. While sadness envelops Yunfen, nurse/prostitute Yu Zhen (Zhang Ziyi) continues to search for her long-lost love in Shanghai. She hears that she might find him (or his corpse) in Keelung so she angles for a boat ticket to Taiwan – a problem since the tickets prices keep rising and Yu Zhen is naturally broke. This leads to some shady encounters, plus problems with her landlord Mrs. Gu (Faye Yu).
At the same time, Yu Zhen’s fake marriage photo partner Tong Daqing (Tong Dawei) still pines for Yu Zhen. But is unfortunately laid up with massive wounds after fighting alongside General Lei. Also, Daqing is in possession of General Lei’s notebook, and desires to hand it to Yunfen, who has her own minor goal: To complete the unfinished piano composition left behind by Masako. So, besides unrequited love and romantic tragedy powering these folks there are sidequests involving friendship and fraternal duty to complete. You are a busy bunch, Crossing people.
It’s hard to be that interested in these characters, though. Throughout both of the Crossing films, characters haven’t progressed beyond decent, idealized romantic types, and after a while seeing a spectacularly beautiful person agonize over their separation from another spectacularly beautiful person isn’t that compelling. While a cigar-chomping manly cartoon, General Lei at least had his heroic edge tested; the rest of these people are moony romantics who just go with the flow.
The worst person in the film, besides the nameless people who trample others for a boat ticket, is Bowie Lam as a slimy businessman who’ll solicit Yu Zhen for sex in the middle of a cargo yard. Yet, he’s not evil – he’s just a jerk, and certainly no foil for the rest of the super-awesome characters. Crossing needs a Rhett Butler or Scarlett O’Hara – characters that are as arrogant as they are attractive, who experience some measure of comeuppance alongside the fulfillment of their desires. Characters like that interest and engage audiences, not the beautiful paragons of virtue found in The Crossing.
John Woo and company simply squander their opportunities for greater drama or emotion. The drama is prosaic with thematic or emotional build-up missing in everything except perhaps the Yu Zhen-Tong Daqing romance, which at least has an active “Will they meet again?” plot thread going on. Conversely, Zekun’s romance is stymied by distance and over-plotted family drama that was never established properly.
Adding to the lack of surprise is the fact that 50% of the drama in Crossing II is shown using recycled footage from Crossing I but with details not included or revealed in the first film. The additions can be gratuitous. However, the film makes a big show of adding an extra connection to Zekun and Yunfen’s first meeting. But the actual effect on the narrative is a big fat zilch. Flashbacks to the first film are mostly needless, the lone exception being a wartime encounter between General Lei and Zekun that helps to flesh out both characters. Relevant moments like these are few and far between, unfortunately.
Lest we forget, these movies are supposed to be about a boat: the Taiping, which sank on January 27, 1949 off the coast of Zhajiang Province. The sinking is quick but naturally dramatic. And we get a decent moment in the reunion of Yu Zhen and Tong Daqing. At the same time, Zekun runs around helping people, which is stirring for its heroism but doesn’t resolve his story arc at all.
Zekun was always portrayed as someone who did his duty. But his personal arc was always about his long-lost love – so seeing him leap to help strangers is not as compelling as it should be. The most interesting moments during the sinking are seeing the floating survivors turn on each other for life jackets and scraps of flotsam. But even this glimpse at darker humanity does not relate thematically to the film. It’s just “Oh, this stuff happened” fodder, and doesn’t really add to the characters or their stories. The script lacks a sense of inevitability or irony that would make its climactic sinking anything more than an obligatory event.
Ultimately, The Crossing shouldn’t have been two films. The characters and situations are not that complex and the filmmakers reuse up to thirty minutes of footage from Part 1 anyway. Also, the lack of interesting characters is a real detriment, and some stories go conspicuously unresolved. Zekun and Masako’s romance meets a poor end – while it does receive some closure. There is no acknowledgement from Zekun’s family, who played a part in the drama. Also, by poorly resolving the conflicts set up in Part 1. The Crossing II (phim hay thuyet minh 2020)ends up making the first film worse.
Ay-yi-yi, John Woo, what did you do? The thing about Crossing as a whole is that it’s not terrible. It’s a well-made romantic spectacle that’s just too bloated and fails upon any serious scrutiny. The biggest takeaway from this entire debacle (the films, not the actual sinking of the Taiping) may be that John Woo needs an editor. Or that his producer should stop him from making two-parters. Red Cliff excepted, a single 2-hour film should be John Woo’s joint. I’ll see your 120-minute film, Mr. Woo. Anything more and we’ll have to talk.