By Clemence Yeung (Hong Kong)
The Crossing – A Tour de Force Weighted Down By Marketing Miscalculations
John Woo’s reputation looms so large in Asian cinema that when plans for a romantic epic to be directed by him were announced a few years ago, a stunning list of Asian’s top actors and actresses signed up for the project. Despite, however, the unprecedented star power and John Woo’s directorial prowess, The Crossing failed to ignite the box office in China, the largest cinema bourse in Asia.
The film’s real drawback may have been the decision to cast Zhang Ziyi. Chemistry between Zhang and Dong Daiwa, great performers as they are, was always unlikely to be forthcoming. As it happens, the narrative involving their characters probably never quite captured the romantic imagination of the audience. It may be that Zhang was cast not just for her widely acknowledged acting skills but also on distribution grounds, with probably the market in North America uppermost in mind. But to the extent that pairing Dong and Zhang as a romantic couple would have dampened rather than excited the interest of potential viewers, the film (ironically) would have suffered in commercial terms.
If Zhang’s character had been played by a lesser star – followers of the cinema in mainland China would only be too aware of the preponderance of fine actresses there – and given a supporting role, more screen time would have been available for adding to the two romances in the film that are the most likely to engage the audience. Yu Zhen would still have been an important character to convey the messages of goodness, courage and resilience. Dong’s brilliantly effortless and endearing portrayal of a foot soldier with the biggest of heart would still have won over the viewers. But it may be that the relationship between the two characters need not have been elevated to that of a romance.
The decision to show the film in two parts is well understandable given that the project was undertaken at a time before films are grossing billions of dollars in a single month in China. Moderate by US standard, the film with a US$50m budget was a colossal investment in the Asian film world. But the decision to market the film as China’s Titanic was clearly a mistake. Titanic is about a shipwreck and a love story that happens on board. The Crossing involves a much broader canvass and all the romantic courtships take place on dry land.
In fairness the director has said repeatedly that he loves David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago and had wanted to make an epic love story. Whether he could or ought to have restrained those responsible for marketing and distributing the film from invoking comparisons with Titanic is maybe debatable. In the event, the error made the film easy prey to some critics and exposed it to negative reviews, which almost invariably criticize the absence of maritime actions in first instalment of the film and the relatively short screen time devoted to the sinking of the steamer Tai Ping in the second.
Similarities between Doctor Zhivago and The Crossing are the most obvious in their visual flair and epic scale, and the use of a period of relentless political turbulence as backdrop. Just as Doctor Zhivago is not a political film, so The Crossing does not seek to examine the conflicts which brought about the civil war in the mainland or the repression in Taiwan. But there are scenes which appear to deprecate the military judgment of Chiang Kai-shek and are critical of the suppression of young protestors by his government. Here maybe historians would be disinclined to demur. There are also scenes in Part I which depict earnest supporters of the communists in the villages offering food and other assistance to the soldiers. Those scenes are probably accurate as far as they go. They are also relevant to understanding the decision of Haung’s old subordinate, himself a brave Nationalist veteran, to defect to the communists, and who would later attempt to persuade the besieged general to do the same (which Haung’s character, displaying commendable political incorrectness, refused). However, earlier in the film there is a line spoken (albeit rather insouciantly) by Song’s wealthy banker father which appears to suggest that a change of government (which could only have meant communist rule) might be good for the country. John Woo fans would cut the director some slack here and just wish that the subject scene had ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Part I of the film is by no means a mere curtain raiser. The ending battle sequence is a pyrotechnic reconstruction from one of the most decisive and fateful campaigns in Chinese military history, fought on the wintry plains of China in 1948, and was shot with an astounding sureness of hand (on the other hand, the obliteration of a Japanese Army stronghold at the start of the film, whilst involving some very stylish action, feels a little underwhelmed, the reason for which may have been budget constraint). Whereas US aid did not stop the Nationalists from losing the civil war, army history enthusiasts will spot in the same battle sequence the American-style uniforms worn by the Nationalist Army soldiers and the US equipment which they used.
Cinematic merits of the film apart, some mainland commentators have drawn to attention the fact of the film having unlocked a prohibition long extant in the mainland cinema, where propaganda dictates that the vastly predominant role played by the Nationalist Army in the defeat of the Japanese be minimized, and that leading soldiers of that Army be portrayed as either grossly incompetent, corrupt or downright evil. The significance of this should not be lost – Part I may well have been the first time that viewers in the mainland had seen, in a national release, a positive (and to that extent an unbiased) film depiction of the Nationalist Army, which shows the bravery of its leading combatants in the war against Japan.
Part I really belongs for the most part to Huang Xiaoming and the army general he plays. The real general (Lieutenant General Zhang Lingfu) appears to have been someone of a rather violent character, who shot dead his first wife when she was suspected of having an affair (there is another account which speaks of the general deeming her a spy). Otherwise he was known for his dashing good looks and fearlessness in war, which accounted for a permanent wound in his left leg (it is said that he pointed his gun at the doctor when the latter advised amputation). He was in his forties when he married his second wife, who was then 17 and to whom Song Hye-Kyo’s character may be traced. Huang gives a very able albeit much romanticized rendition of the army hero and, at the end of the dance scene in Part I, executes with perfect aplomb one of those swashbuckling John Woo moments when he goes up to Song with the shoes which she had not had time to put back on before she was swept onto the dance floor.
Song was radiant throughout the film. The character seems to come so naturally to her that it is easy for the audience to forget that she is not Chinese and would have struggled with the language. It is also through her character that the fortitude and steadfastness of Chinese women in the face of wars and political upheavals are extolled at the end of Part II. Haung, when dressed in military uniform, is absolutely convincing as her lover – despite being much less of a star in Asia compared with her. But when dressed in less formal attire – as he is when his character rides with Song’s in the country in Part I – somehow the perfect match that shone on the dance floor loses some of its lustre. Such is Song’s stardom in Asia that one wonders – without detracting from Huang’s overall success in his role – if a much bigger star like Tony Leung (who indeed plays Song’s husband in Wong Kar-Wai’s Grandmaster) might not have made the romance yet more compelling.
Masami Nagasawa is much under-used in both Part I and II, which is a real shame. Whereas the other main characters meet their fate on account of individual choices (as professional soldiers duty bound to risk their lives) or a seafaring accident (as a direct cause), the hardships suffered by Nagasawa’s character are due entirely to war and political transitions. Nagasawa’s character therefore would have been a markedly good vehicle for making the point that in times of tumultuous conflicts, the political – as the saying goes – becomes personal. It might be that marketing considerations were thought to militate against exploiting the rich possibilities in the character played by Nagasawa, who is one of the very best known actresses in Japan, but far from being a household name in China.
Like Song, Nagasawa was cast perfectly. The sunny disposition of the character (which is probably also true of the actress herself) contrasts with that of the character played by Takeshi Kaneshiro. The torment for Kaneshiro’s character was multi-fold. Though a Chinese, he was drafted by the Japanese Army in Taiwan to serve as an army doctor with frontline troops in the mainland, where he was to be captured as a prisoner of war. His manipulative mother (played by renowned Taiwanese actress Yang Kuei-mei) disapproves of his romance with a Japanese girl and destroyed the letters written by Nagasawa while he was with the army. He effectively lost her when she was rounded up with other Japanese residents and repatriated to the Japan after the Nationalist government took over Taiwan at the end of the war.
One of the surprises in Part I is the deftness with which the romance between Kaneshiro and Nagasawa is presented. There is a lightness of touch, which is revealing for a director who is best known for grit and kinetic action. The scenes are picturesque. The pace is brisk. But nothing is lost in terms of plausibility. There are moments of fun. In an exquisite scene Nagasawa succeeds in bringing out the playfulness in her handsome but diffident admirer by leading him in a dance up a flight of stony steps.
Kaneshiro’s interpretation of his character requires him to draw much from his emotional resources, the depth of which the roles he has played in his other works seem not to have tested. He does not disappoint. In multiple scenes Kaneshiro extracts from himself exacting performances which articulate the (often subdued) emotions of his character.
There is one scene when Song’s character plays to him a piano tune which she has completed from an unfinished score left behind by Nagasawa. The music was intended by Song to unburden herself of the loss of her husband, and by Nagasawa to express her affection and longing for her lover. Slowly Kaneshiro’s character lets his emotion take over as he listens to the music. It is the most powerful and moving scene in the first half of Part II.
The scenes depicting the sinking of Tai Ping and the collision with another vessel which precedes it are crisp (on 3D), fast-moving (without sacrificing attention to detail) and realistic (without having had the studio break the bank). Those scenes are commensurate with the director’s fame as the master of action. In the film’s last climactic scenes, the passengers strive for survival in the water – not all of them care for the lives of others. There are some heart-wrenching moments. But the film ends on a bright note as renewal follows destruction.
Much of the cinema of John Woo is about emotions and it might be thought that raw emotions abounded in the film. There are indeed a number of emotionally charged moments involving Huang the army general, not least the stallion scene and the scene where he and his loyal lieutenant pull each from up, amidst a spray of machine-gun bullets. But otherwise the director appears to have expected his cast to shun sentimentality and still more overblown emotions. The result is that while there is no lack of scenes in which the characters are brought to tears, the emotions on the screen stop short of overwhelming the viewer.
The crackling set-pieces apart, for the most part the film adopts an understated approach. Despite its subject matter and the themes which it espouses, the film contains no sonorous declarations of affection and does not moralise. It lets the images on the screen speak for themselves. Not all of them succeed. Despite the lush and leafy surroundings and the help of a jeep ignition, the scenes immediately following the sequence on the dance floor fail to capitalize on the success of the latter and establish once and for all a deep romantic bond between the characters played Huang and Song. But more often the visuals are effective. Shots of a frantic and distraught Yang Kuei-mei on her bicycle are genuinely affecting. So also is the image of a gifted teenage girl in a peasant robe singing opera in front of an appreciative crowd in the cabin for the poorer passengers. The shot encapsulates the festive mood (it is Lunar New Year’s Eve) among the passengers on Tai Ping (none of whom has the slightest foreboding of what lies ahead) and at the same time exudes humanity.
Another aspect of the film which evidences the astuteness underpinning John Woo’s direction is the exposition of the three entwining stories, which is lucid and feels neither hurried nor dilatory. The strength of the film in the acting department is phenomenal. It is not only the lead characters who turn in great performances. Whether it is the panic-stricken infantryman who, in the thick of battle, wonders desperately how to load a rocket launcher, the razor-tongued woman at the hair salon in Shanghai who insults and rants at her prostitute neighbour, or the inebriated officer who reports to the Captain that the ship is safe when water has begun to rush into its bow, there are exceptionally good performances from literally everyone on the cast. This is a testament not just to the depth of talents in Chinese cinema today, or the reverence in which the director is held by his cast, but also the merits of the directorial style of John Woo, who is known to respect and give his actors a lot of freedom.
Among the illustrious supporting cast, Johnny Kou, who plays Song’s father, projects class and gravitas. Faye Yu Fei Hong dictates special mention. Her character may well represent the director’s vision of the ideal Chinese woman of the Nationalist era – virtuous, empathetic, and generous and caring to a fault. Yu’s eyes, large and luminous, radiate with warmth. When she appears the viewer is drawn to her, however bigger a star her counterpart in the same scene may be.
The technical credits feature the top personalities in the business. Across the board – from production design to sound effects (two areas which stand out in particular), The Crossing provides the very best that Chinese cinema has to offer, and is on a par with, if not better than, most of the Hollywood productions.
Composing for his second John Woo film, Iwashiro Taro proves once again that he is a worthy collaborator of the film maestro. His score, without being grandiloquent or sentimental, captures the romantic and epic tone of the film with a number of fine melodies. The music which accompanies the dance between Huang and Song in Part I is sweeping and graceful. The Yu Zhen theme is a fitting tribute to Doctor Zhivago. Nagasawa’s tune, named after the Japanese silvergrass which surrounds her Japanese style house in Taiwan, is idyllic and restrained in Part I, but develops into an impassioned anti-war statement in Part II, amidst scenes of protests for peace and a change of government.
In Part I the doves make their most stylish appearance in any of the John Woo’s films yet, flapping their wings in front of Tai Ping’s emerald starboard where the ship’s name appears. The camera cuts to a similar shot in Part II, but in the context of a scene which might be considered incongruous with the beauty of the shot.
Probably because Part I failed at the box office, and in order to attract viewers who had not seen Part I and enable them to follow the intertwining stories, Part II contains a combination of flashbacks and scenes repeated from the first part. They are introduced to the film with great skill and do not feel at all obtrusive. They do occupy just under a quarter of the screen time, so viewers who have seen Part I and are not convinced of the merits of the entire epic might well complain. It is impossible to tell what further scenes Part II would have offered if expediency had not intervened to justify the material from Part I. Part II does watch like a stand-alone film and may give an inkling as to the material – there will be an overflow of great scenes to choose from – that may be included in, for instance, a three-hour release.
The Crossing has not succeeded commercially, but it is a tour de force no less. If it was unwise in marketing terms to cast them as a couple and give their characters the prominent roles they receive, Zhang and Dong (particularly Dong) would nonetheless have left the audience in awe of their talents, and entertained them with their art. International audiences will see a condensed version of the two-part epic. Given the meticulous production, the sumptuous cinematography, the beautifully choreographed dance sequence, the fiery battle scenes, the great performances from the cast and the spectacle of the demise of Tai Ping – the film in a single release will just be jaw-dropping. With a capable overseas distributor, The Crossing may yet prove to be both, like its towering predecessor, Red Cliff, a cinematic and commercial success.