The Crossing II (太平轮:惊涛挚爱)

For F*** Magazine

THE CROSSING II (太平轮:惊涛挚爱)
Director : John Woo
Cast : Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Song Hye-Kyo, Huang Xiaoming, Tong Dawei, Masami Nagasawa, Amanda Qin, Yu Feihong, Tony Yang, Qianyuan Wang, Bowie Lam
Genre : Drama/Romance
Run Time : 126 mins
Opens : 13 August 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Disturbing Scenes)

The second and final part of John Woo’s historical disaster epic washes ashore. Picking up where the first film left off, we continue following the three central romances as all parties are swept up in the aftermath of the Chinese Revolution in 1949. Taiwanese Doctor Yan Zekun (Kaneshiro) is caught in a bind, his mother intending that he marry Meifang (Angeles Woo), the widow of his brother. Zekun’s heart still belongs to Masako (Nagasawa), who has been writing letters to him, letters that Mrs. Yan has burned in the hopes of putting an end to that relationship. Yuzhen (Ziyi) is desperate to get on a boat out of Shanghai, believing that her fiancé is waiting for her in Taiwan. At the hospital where she volunteers, she is briefly reunited with a severely wounded Tong Daqing (Tong). Yunfen (Song), the pregnant wife of General Lei Yifang (Huang), boards the steamer Taiping with her family. The Taiping, overladen with passengers and cargo, embarks on its fateful voyage for Taiwan, a voyage the vessel will not complete.

Just when we thought nothing could be more pointless that The Crossing: Part 1, Part 2 comes along. Essentially, audiences were being told “before you get to the big sinking, let’s spend some time with the characters and get to know them.” “Some time” turns out to be one and half movies, by which point most viewers will have to restrain themselves from yelling “just sink already!” at the screen. The first film was filled with languid romantic interludes of lovers gazing longingly into each other’s eyes, in between requisite battlefield carnage. Instead of getting right into the action, we are saddled with even more set-up, in which characters rattle off long passages of exposition establishing how the main characters are connected. It turns out that it’s coincidence and not love that holds the world together in the most tumultuous of times.

The Crossing has been called “the Chinese Titanic” and it seems director Woo doesn’t mind the comparison: after all, Titanic is the second highest-grossing film of all time. The similarities are apparent: both films aspire to be sweeping period romances that revolve around fictional characters and are set against a historical disaster at sea. While Titanic is often regarded as cheesy, The Crossing surpasses it in this regard by far. At every turn, the film is melodramatic rather than moving. While Titanic had one romantic relationship as its focus, The Crossing has to split its time between three romances that have to converge in a triumph of contrivance. The intention seems to be that the audience is equally invested in each of the three love stories presented, but that is ultimately too much to ask.

Huang Xiaoming and Tong Dawei take a backseat in this installment, with the bulk of the screen time going to Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Ziyi. Kaneshiro is effective as a noble figure forced into a bind and it certainly helps that he’s very easy on the eye. Zhang Ziyi continues to essay Yuzhen’s tenacity, and one of the film’s few genuinely heart-breaking moments is when Yuzhen agrees to have sex with sleazy businessman Peter (Lam) for a boat ticket. In the midst of the unpleasant act, she peeks through a small crack in the wall, looking expectantly at the ferry moored in the harbor.

The actual sinking of the Taiping is an adequately spectacular sequence of unfolding chaos, even if the computer-generated effects lack polish. The sets and practical effects are well done and it does feel like our protagonists are in legitimate danger. However, after more than three hours of build-up over two films, it’s far from sufficient payoff. We are aware that we sound like heartless beasts, baying for more carnage and less interpersonal drama, but the film’s selling point is, after all, the sinking.

With the conclusion of the two-part movie, Woo has created something that’s not so much sweeping and epic as it is waterlogged. Thrill at people folding paper cranes, composing love songs and taking very long walks through the tall silvergrass! Often unbearably, painfully cheesy, it’s difficult to truly appreciate the authenticity of crowd scenes such as mass student protests being broken up by the military police, and indeed the climactic disaster itself. Treacly and sentimental rather than emotional and containing far from enough spectacle for the slow parts to be tolerable, The Crossing is stranded adrift at sea.

Summary: John Woo’s attempt at re-creating an Old Hollywood-style wartime disaster epic ends up drowning in its own cheesiness.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Hollywood Adventures (横冲直撞好莱坞)

For F*** Magazine


Director : Timothy Kendall
Cast : Zhao Wei, Huang Xiaoming, Tong Dawei, Sarah Li, Sung Kang, Rhys Coiro, Stephen Tobolowsky, Simon Helberg, Robert Patrick, Kat Dennings. Tyrese Gibson, Missi Pyle
Run Time : 115 mins
Opens : 9 July 2015
Rating : NC16 (Some Drug Use)
These tourists turn tinsel town topsy-turvy. Say that three times fast. In this action comedy, Huang Xiaoming stars as Beijing car salesman Xiaoming, who is about to propose to his girlfriend Yan Yan (Li) when she up and leaves him to become a production assistant in Hollywood. Xiaoming frantically grabs the last available ticket to L.A., inadvertently joining the “Hollywood Adventures” tour group with garrulous movie buff Dawei (Tong). They arrive in the City of Angels, meeting up with tour guide Wei Wei (Zhao). In the process of his quest to win back the love of his life, Xiaoming stumbles into a smuggling operation, running afoul of various colourful characters including shady motel proprietor Manny Love (Kang), irascible movie director Wronald Wright (Tobolowsky) and diva movie star Gary Buesheimer (Coiro).

            This China-U.S. co-production is half showbiz satire, half “idiots abroad” comedy. Helmed by small-time TV director Timothy Kendall and co-written and co-produced by Justin Lin of Fast and Furious fame, Hollywood Adventures is Lin’s attempt at breaking into the lucrative Chinese film market. The film plays into China’s growing consumption of and fascination with American popular culture, stuffed to the gills with references to movies and TV shows. The creative team, including Lin, Kendall and co-writers Brice Beckham and Philip W. Chung, are all American, casting three of China’s biggest stars in a bid to appeal to Chinese filmgoers. Unfortunately for Lin and company, the film raked in far less than expected upon its opening in China.

            There is the sense throughout the film that the filmmakers are eager to pander to their target audience’s larger-than-life perception of the United States in general and Hollywood in particular. Hollywood Adventures is filled with depictions of ludicrous film industry shenanigans and it portrays Americans as simpletons easily appeased by mindless violence – in-story, a reality TV show called “Punch Me” is sweeping the nation. There are also several surprise celebrity cameos – Dawei has a massive crush on Kat Dennings, whom he naturally runs into on a movie set, and The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg shows up as a translator. The highlight of these is an appearance by a certain Terminator star, who leaves dignity at the door and skewers his most famous role with amusing aplomb.

While often unfocused and very, very broad in its comedic stylings, the film does have a fair number of laughs. The Dawei character is one of those guys who speaks exclusively in movie references and quotes and is the source of fourth-wall breaking meta-fictional humour – you’ll notice that all three protagonists share the names of the actors playing them. It’s often very on the nose – upon first seeing Manny, Dawei remarks that he “looks a lot like Han from the Fast and Furious movies” – both characters are played by Sung Kang. However, this type of winking self-awareness is rare in Chinese comedies and fits right in with the L.A. setting of the movie. The film trades in various well-worn formulas, but every time a familiar trope shows up, Dawei is there to remark on it. That doesn’t excuse its lack of originality but it does make it easier to go along with the romp.

The three leads are excellently cast – Huang Xiaoming plays the strait-laced straight man, Tong Dawei is the silly sidekick and Zhao Wei is the plucky, world-weary lass who has to guide the duo through the unfamiliarity of Hollywood. Tong in particular is admirably game for a variety of embarrassing/dumb scenarios – we somehow wind up witnessing him in drag astride a motorcycle during the film’s climactic action sequence. As is often the case, the de-facto main character is the least distinct, but Huang manages to make Xiaoming adequately appealing. Zhao showcases the comic timing she’s become known for and as she plays the only one of the three leads conversant in English, does most of the interacting with the other characters for the other two. On the other hand, Rhys Coiro is not even a tiny bit convincing as a big-shot movie star involved in some illegal business. We also find it puzzling that the character’s name is a play on “Gary Busey”, of all the “top movie stars” to lampoon.

Hollywood Adventures is stupid, but for the most part, it’s amiably so. As a send-up of typical Hollywood excesses, the film ends up partaking in those same excesses, taking a hard right in its third act into thriller territory. There are still gags, but these take a backseat to a kidnapping, a showdown at an exclusive shindig and lots of cars crashing into each other and flipping through the air. The three main characters also rather conveniently become expert sharpshooters, martial artists and stunt performers by the time the denouement rolls around. Even given all that, there’s a fair amount to enjoy and despite its various shortcomings, the movie has enough raucous energy for it to pass as a somewhat entertaining diversion.

Summary: This rampage through Hollywood is brash and very silly, but the strength of the three leads and a good dose of self-aware humour carry it to the finish line.
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

The Crossing – Part 1 (太平轮: 乱世浮生 –上)

THE CROSSING – PART 1(太平轮: 乱世浮生 –上)

Director : John Woo
Cast : Zhang Ziyi, Song Hye Kyo, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Huang Xiaoming, Tong Dawei, Masami Nagasawa, Hitomi Kuroki, Lin Mei Hsiu, Jack Kao
Genre : Romance/Drama
Run Time : 129 mins
Opens : 5 December 2014
Rating : NC-16 (Battle Scenes)
It’s been five years since the release of Red Cliff – Part 2 and director John Woo is back with the first film of another two-part historical epic, albeit one of a different stripe. It is 1945 and Chinese general Lei Yi Fang (Huang) defeats the Japanese troops, resulting in the capture of Yan Ze Kun (Kaneshiro), a Taiwanese doctor working for the Japanese army. Lei falls in love with Zhou Yun Fen (Song), who comes from a wealthy Shanghainese family. After Yan is released from the prisoner-of-war camp, he discovers his girlfriend Masako (Nagasawa) has been repatriated back to Japan. In 1948, as the Chinese Revolution begins to take shape, Lei is thrown back into the thick of battle. In the meantime, signaller Tong Daqing (Tong) has a chance encounter with volunteer nurse Yu Zhen (Zhang), with whom he is immediately smitten. Unbeknownst to him, Yu Zhen has to moonlight as a prostitute in order to make ends meet. We follow these three couples as their paths converge, leading them to the Taiping, a Chinese steamer bound for Taiwan, a last ray of hope as the Revolution heats up.

            Everyone has been referring to this film as the Chinese equivalent of Titanic. Well, that will have to wait until Part 2. First, we have to sit through what can be described as the Chinese equivalent of Pearl Harbour, a big, tragic wartime romance. Just as Michael Bay, a filmmaker known for bombastic action films, struggled with the hokey romance in Pearl Harbour, John Woo seems to have difficulty reconciling the tender love stories with the battlefield carnage in The Crossing – Part 1. The film lurches awkwardly from bodies being blasted apart in combat to lovers casting longing glances at each other, without ever really gelling. This is a decidedly unsubtle film and to call it “overwrought” would be an understatement. Every last wartime romance cliché in the book is flung into Wang Hui-ling’s screenplay – there’s even a “wife writes a love letter as we cut to the husband caught in battle” scene. This isn’t just cheesy, it’s cheese that’s set on fire and one can almost hear director Woo exclaiming “Saganaki!” in the background.

            Yes, this can be called “lush”, with faithful period recreations of post-war Shanghai and explosive battle scenes, but the beautiful cinematography by Zhao Fei is undercut by stilted editing and transitions, not to mention gobs of slow-motion even where it’s plainly unnecessary. The film’s pacing suffers in places and it is often painfully obvious that things are being padded out so the story can be split into two films. This is a war movie that features a subplot in which a woman struggles to compose a song for her husband. While it is evident that this is a big-budget production (by Mainland Chinese film standards), there are lapses in production values such as some unconvincing digital seagulls. We saw the 2D version but even then, a moment in which a tank hatch hurtles straight at the audience is embarrassingly gimmicky. If you have a thing for trucks flipping over as they explode, then the climactic battle between the Nationalists and Communists will leave you satisfied.

            The three male leads are appealingly charming in their own ways. Huang Xiaoming is classically heroic and dashing, Takeshi Kaneshiro has the sexy/vulnerable thing down pat and Tong Dawei’s goofy earnestness does provide welcome respite from the heaviness of the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the female characters are somewhat side-lined and mostly relegated to the role of “pining for significant other while he is out at war”. Of the women in the film, Zhang Ziyi has the most significant role, paring down her usual glamour to play the poor, illiterate Yu Zhen. Of the three central relationships, that between Tong Daqing and Yu Zhen is the most interesting – having never met before, Daqing takes a phony “family photo” with Yu Zhen and a random baby so he can be granted extra rations. It’s a shame that Lei Yi Fang and Zhou Yun Feng’s love story is downright dreary in comparison.

            The Crossing – Part 1 is a better war movie than it is a sweeping romance, and even then it isn’t an outstanding war movie at all. Constructed as a crowd-pleasing historical epic, the film’s transitions from brutal war violence to soppy sentimentality are jarring to say the least. John Woo is in his element for less than half the time here and at least there’s an all-star cast to enact all the shop-worn tropes. Here’s hoping Part 2, centred on the sinking of the Taiping itself, is more focused.

Summary: The Crossing – Part 1 is unsuccessful at being a passionate romantic epic and fares only slightly better as an explosive war movie. Also, you’ll have to wait until May 2015 for any actual “crossing” to happen.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong