That sinking feeling

After a six year hiatus, director John Woo unveils new big budget film

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Zhang Ziyi: stars in new Titanic-esque blockbuster The Crossing

In 2008, director John Woo unveiled Red Cliff, a two-part epic about the Three Kingdoms Period (we reported on it in WiC’s first issue). It was widely rumoured that Woo split the film into two because he ran over budget (and needed a sequel to cover his costs) and because he couldn’t bear editing down the original footage. But no matter, it turned out to be a smart commercial decision. The two-part Red Cliff franchise went on to make Rmb600 million (almost $100 million) in China alone.

Almost six years – and 252 issues – later, WiC has another chance to write about Woo’s work. And once more he has decided to cut the production into two. The first instalment of period drama The Crossing will come out in December, with the second part due for release next May.

Like Red Cliff, Woo’s latest offering has run over budget, says Modern Life Daily, which is why he wants film fans to make two trips to the cinema.

Based on a true story, The Crossing follows the lives of three couples whose lives intersect aboard the Taiping, a steamer that sinks after a collision with a cargo ship in 1949. It features an A-list cast that includes Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro (who played Zhuge Liang in Red Cliff) and South Korean actress Song Hye-kyo. It is believed to have cost more than Rmb400 million to make, a lofty sum by Chinese film industry standards. The studio built a replica of the doomed Taiping steamer and Woo used a pool about half the size of a soccer field to film the water scenes, an idea inspired by his visit to the set of Lee Ang’s The Life of Pi, which was filmed in a 6,750-tonne water tank in Taiwan.

“This is an epic love story spanning 50 years of modern Chinese history. [Three couples] survive war and disaster, they finally find happiness,” says Woo. “But this is not a happy or sad story. It is a romantic story of hope, and has a lot of action, drama and humour.”

The steamer from Shanghai sank en route to Taiwan, killing more than 1,500 passengers. It was ferrying travellers from mainland China to Taiwan as they sought to escape the civil war between the Kuomingtang and the Communist Party. “Because it was so chaotic in [China] at the time, my father was coming to Taiwan to see if it was possible to move here (Taiwan),” the son of one immigrant told the Taipei Times.

The ship, which left the port the night before the Lunar New Year, was sailing at night with its lights out due to a curfew. It collided with a cargo boat near the Zhoushan Archipelago, which is off the coast of Zhejiang province. It sank quickly. Designed to carry 580 people, about three times that number had boarded. Many of the passengers – often from affluent families – may also have loaded large quantities of silver and gold below deck, unbalancing the ship during the collision.

“I saw the other ship sinking quickly into the sea. I stood on a ladder on the side of our ship and dragged people up from the water – I managed to pull about 10 up. Then I saw that the water had come up to my knees and I realised our ship was sinking too. My mind was blank; I thought I might die,” Yip Lun-ming, a survivor of the tragedy, told the South China Morning Post in 2002.

As many as two million refugees like Yip moved to Taiwan in the same period, an island with a population of just 6 million before the migration from the mainland.

Kuomingtang-affiliated historians have long compared the Taiping, which made multiple journeys to the island before its tragic end, to the Mayflower for its role in bringing immigrants to Taiwan. But others wonder if Woo had another vessel in mind. IndieWire, a film blog, calls the project “John Woo’s Titanic”, for instance, while Tencent Entertainment reckons much of the film could prove similar to the James Cameron classic.

But Woo denies the comparison. He says that while Titanic was mostly a love story, The Crossing goes beyond an onboard romance. His film is more akin to Gone With The Wind, he says, because it is a story about love during a turbulent period.

Expect a tear-jerker. Woo told the Beijing Daily that he had trouble controlling his own emotions during the editing of the movie. “These love stories are very touching. I am only just realising that I’m probably better at capturing female romantic sentiments than doing big action films,” says the director.

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