If 'The Crossing 1' was all build-up and no pay-off, we're sad to say that 'The Crossing 2' is no build-up and hardly any pay-off. Meant as a single film but cut into two separate parts for no apparent reason than to maximise box-office revenue, John Woo's passion project based on the sinking of the steamer Taiping is no more than an old-school sweeping war-time romance disguised as disaster spectacle that positioned it as the 'Chinese Titanic'. Though shots of the Taiping bookended the first film, the vessel had not even left its berth in Shanghai for the fateful voyage at the end of two hours – and this concluding second part takes yet another hour to try just as futilely in justifying why we should care about any of its characters before casting them out to sea.
Woo, who co-wrote the screenplay with Su Chao-pin and Chen Ching-hui based upon an original script by 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' and 'Lust, Caution's' Wang Huiling, builds his narrative fibre on the intertwining fates of various characters, including the fiercely loyal Nationalist commander Lei Yifang (Huang Xiaoming) and his wife Yunfen (Song Hye-kyo), the Taiwanese doctor Yan Zekun (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who takes the place of his younger brother to serve in the Sino-Japanese War, and a volunteer nurse named Yuzhen (Zhang Ziyi) searching for her lover amidst the dead and wounded brought in from the frontlines. Given the tepid reception to the first movie, there is no reason to expect that audiences would be well acquainted with these characters, so a good hour is spent as much picking up from where its predecessor left off as re-treading old ground through flashbacks and what not.
Of the lot, only Zekun emerges as a more fully-fleshed character following the requisite exposition here, which balances the maudlin scenes of his Japanese lover Masako (Masami Nagasawa) with that between him and his brother Zeming (Tong Yang) caught in the throes of a Communist revolt. Turns out it was to plead with Zeming to return home to their grief-stricken mother that is why Zekun made the trip to Shanghai and back, the latter being the reason why he ended up on the Taiping on that ill-fated evening. Yuzhen is on that same voyage in the hopes of finding her lover in Taiwan where many Nationalists have fled in the face of the Communist uprising, and meets on the ship her sham husband Tong Daqing (Tong Dawei) whom she was engaged in a marriage of convenience. And if you must know, Yunfen isn't on the boat; instead, she remains throughout the film in her countryside house in Taiwan, awaiting more definitive news of General Lei's circumstances even as an official dispatch informs her of his death upon the decisive Huaihai battle in the winter of 1948.
Because not all the main characters are accorded equal treatment, Woo struggles to balance the principal actors' screen time in order not to inadvertently neglect any one over another. Ziyi for instance appears as much as Takeshi does in the first hour, but her scenes seem padded and do not amount to anything substantial. Ditto for Hye-kyo, whose misfortune of getting bitten by a snake and subsequent treatment by Zekun is rehashed in full to give her character equivalent attention. Woo has said that part two is cut to exist as a standalone movie, but there is too little meat to both Ziyi and Hye-kyo's characters here alone – and ironically too much of déjà vu for those who have seen the earlier movie.
Indeed, it feels almost too long before Woo finally packs Zekun and Yuzhen on the Taiping's final sail from Shanghai to Keelung – but even more disappointing is how quickly the steamer meets its watery end. Hints are dropped about the overloading of the ship, but these amount to little as soon as it leaves the Shanghai harbour. Equally, the class divide among those on board is hinted at but never given any teeth, not even when the ship capsizes. And on that note, there is one shot of the Taiping slamming into the freight ship Chian Yuan that is impressive even by Hollywood standards, and another of the Taiping toppling over after taking in water from the hull, but on the whole, the choreography lacks scale and continuity to fully convey the gravity of the disaster.
That is perhaps the greatest disappointment, not least because Woo is supposedly at the helm and the director is no stranger to bold action set-pieces as evinced from the hugely superior 'Red Cliff' duology. Whether out of budgetary constraints or otherwise, the sequences lack the usual John Woo grandeur, and instead are largely concentrated on the bow where Zekun and Yuzhen (conveniently) find themselves when tragedy strikes. Too much time is also spent watching the passengers flounder and flail in the open water after the ship tips over, which is probably a befitting metaphor for how Woo's film itself struggles to stay afloat.
And so what sounded promisingly as the next John Woo epic has sadly turned into his albatross, as the auteur fails to make good on what goodwill was left from part one to rescue his own waterlogged project. It isn't a failure by titanic proportions, but 'The Crossing' is without a doubt a huge let-down. Those looking for spectacle will most certainly be upset that the pivotal event is but an overdue and short-lived climax, whereas those looking for emotional pathos will find – without the benefit of part one – too many underwritten characters that pop up only to augment the melodrama. Were it one movie instead of two, 'The Crossing' could have been more compelling; as it stands, this drawn-out second part is yet another long tease that never offers sufficient payoff.