Historical drama that barely stays afloat

Zhang Ziyi (left) plays Yu Zhen, a village girl who becomes a prostitute.
Zhang Ziyi (above) plays Yu Zhen, a village girl who becomes a prostitute.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

The characters in The Crossing II are undone by its unforgivably saccharine dialogue and plot


126 minutes/Opens tomorrow/**1/2

THE STORY: The second and concluding part of the historical drama sees Zhou Yun Fen (Song Hye Kyo), having moved from Shanghai to Taiwan, discovering secrets about her doctor, Yan Zen Kun (Takeshi Kaneshiro), and his relationship with lost Japanese lover Masako (Masami Nagasawa). Zhou's husband, Nationalist general Lei Yifang (Huang Xiaoming), is still at the front lines fighting the Red Army, but entrusts a message to his aide, Tong Daqing (Tong Dawei).

Meanwhile, Yu Zhen (Zhang Ziyi) is still trying to leave Shanghai for Taiwan, where she thinks her lover, an injured soldier, has been moved to.

Director John Woo does not just want his movie to be set in 1949. He wants to make movies as if it were still 1949.

This movie and its 2014 predecessor are throwbacks to a time of the all-in-one epic, in which society women were literally swept off their feet by dashing soldiers after one dance at a ball, with long battle setpieces and in which lovelorn women write songs to be hidden behind picture frames in the hope that lost loves will find them.

Woo might be out of touch. As Disney's Frozen (2013) made clear, you can still sell a fairy tale, but audiences today want in on the artifice of it, such as by saying that marrying a stranger you meet at a ball is a terrible idea.

Not that all of it is bad. If the first movie's stylised sentimentalism felt wholly unsatisfactory, it was because it was all tease. It should have been followed up by this movie, not a year later, but after a proper 1949-style 20-minute intermission.

Now that the entire story arc is out, all that overwrought romanticism makes more sense, but just barely.

The two films ask viewers to see its events not as coincidences - that love letters thrust into a fire can be saved in the nick of time by a timely appearance of a key character, or that star-crossed lovers would meet again on a doomed ship - but as lyrics to a song composed by fate.

Viewers have to be patient, to trust that the songwriter knows what he is doing all the way to the last verse.

That is a big ask and this movie has not earned the right to make the request.

It was inevitable that any story based on the real-life 1949 sinking of the steamer Taiping with the loss of 1,500 lives would be compared with Titanic (1997).

However, the director of classics such as A Better Tomorrow (1986), working with a screenplay from Wang Huiling (Lust, Caution; 2007), seems to be unaware of the shoals he is sailing into.

Woo does not just lift themes - he borrows Titanic scenes and key ones at that.

Zhang as the long-suffering and stoic village-girl-turned-prostitute Yu Zhen gives a strong and moving showing, but her work is undone by the unforgivably saccharine dialogue and plot.

Her part, along with all others, goes down with a vessel that should have stayed in the harbour, or waited until it was properly equipped before it weighed anchor.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2015, with the headline 'Historical drama that barely stays afloat'. Print Edition | Subscribe