Veteran filmmaker John Woo is the helmer of such iconic movies as 1989’s The Killer, 1992’s Hard Boiled and later Face/Off (have John Travolta or Nicolas Cage ever been better?), Mission: Impossible 2 and the Red Cliff movies. He’s about to see the second part of his passion project, The Crossing, released in China later this month. Billed in local media as the “Chinese Titanic,” the two-part period epic is set during the Chinese Civil War and revolves around three couples from different backgrounds whose lives are affected by the sinking of the steamer Taiping, which led to the deaths of over 1,500 passengers and crew. Ziyi Zhang stars. Woo oversaw an emotional and packed 2014 Cannes press conference to talk up the film whose first part released during the Christmas holiday corridor last year. Middle Kingdom box office under-performed at about $33M while reviews were mixed for the 3D drama. Hopes, however, are high for Part 2 whose trailer is above. I recently spoke with Woo about what sets this film apart from the first installment, the Chinese industry overall and what he’s up to next.
DEADLINE: What made The Crossing such a passion project? Why did you choose to do this film to mark a return to directing after Red Cliff II?
WOO: I have always been a big fan of David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, and wanted to make an epic love story myself. It’s always been my dream as a director to shoot something beautiful, and on a sweeping scale that captures the turbulence of a changing era. The script for The Crossing had all of these elements. Most western audiences are unfamiliar with Chinese history from that period of time, so I wanted show them the struggles and tribulations, and ultimately triumphs, that people form that era experienced.
DEADLINE: Was it always planned as two parts?
WOO: No. I had originally wanted a three-hour film, but the story was too long and complex. There are three couples in the film, and the material about each couple could in fact be sufficient to film one movie for each. Since there was enough material to create two separate films, we decided to do that instead.
DEADLINE: When Part 1 was released last Christmas, there were very high hopes for the film, but it did not perform to expectations. Do you have any theory as to why that was the case?
WOO: If this film had come out several years ago, the reception would have been very different. But the market has changed a lot the past few years. The main moviegoing audience in China is what we call the post-90s generation, that is, youths born after 1990. Their taste is mostly for Hollywood blockbusters and locally-produced romantic comedies, which is quite different from the subject matter of our movie. Also, we only had two and a half months for post-production, which meant that we had to rush the editing, visual effects, sound, and so on. Even though the box office was not great, audiences who later watched it on television and DVD gave pretty positive reviews.
DEADLINE: What sets Part 2 apart? How, if at all, did you adjust it after the release of Part 1?
WOO: We have had more time to work on post-production for Part 2, which means better visual effects and more time for marketing. The emphasis will be on the ship sinking, which will be impressive visually. We’ve also cut it in such a way so that if you didn’t see Part 1, you could still understand Part 2, which is a standalone movie by itself.
DEADLINE: Chinese audience tastes have changed, so what happens next?
WOO: As I mentioned, the post-90s generation has a preference for either Hollywood blockbusters such as those superhero summer tentpoles, or local romantic comedies. They pretty much go for popcorn entertainment, stuff which is visually exciting. But I believe the market will mature slowly, and audiences will start to go for films which are more fulfilling emotionally and spiritually, than just sheer spectacle.
DEADLINE: You have had a long and prestigious career in both Asia and Hollywood and have been witness to the explosion of the Chinese market. Do you think international audiences are ready to embrace Chinese films?
WOO: I think it will be quite hard. China will need to produce something that Hollywood cannot do. For example, stuff like we did in Hong Kong back in the 80s, combining action with drama and humor. Or tell stories about Chinese heroes that are just as, if not more interesting, than Hollywood ones. In other words, China will need to produce something unique and original, and not ape the latest Hollywood trends. Even so, it will still be a challenge as there is a lot of cultural misunderstanding between the U.S. and China. For example, some teenager from the midwest, why would he go to the cinema to see a Chinese movie? Perhaps both cultures need a better understanding of each other.
DEADLINE: What else are you working on?
WOO: I am doing a film called Manhunt, which is a return to my old style. It’s a thriller about a man framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and has to go on the run to prove his innocence. I also hope to shoot Flying Tigers, about a band of U.S. pilots who flew in China during WW2 and helped fight the Japanese.