Crossing Over (Feng Huang)

Bottom Line: A lumbering jailbird romance reflecting the turbulence of Chinese history.

Tokyo International Film Festival

TOKYO -- Presented at the opening of Tokyo International Film Festival as a memorial screening of Sino-Japanese friendship, "Crossing Over" ("Feng Huang") is a co-production that is aimed more at the Japanese market than the Chinese one. Its outmoded subject and old-school directorial style signal a generation gap between 38-year-old director-writer Jin Chen and the crop of young talent that's remapping Chinese cinema in much more exciting and innovative ways. Anachronistically appropriating the early period pieces of 5th generation directors such as Tian Zhuangzhuang and Zhang Yimou, Jin only occasionally comes close to recreating their historic vision and insight into humanity.

Based on a true story and spanning more than three decades, the film represents prison as a microcosm of Chinese society -- its bureaucracy, factionalism, punitive control, barbarity, sexual repression and the Chinese's resilience, loyalty and altruistic love. At the same time, the prison is a subjective space sealed off from social reality. Outside, wars rage, governments fall and rise. Inside, life goes on in a time warp.

Liu Lang (Kiichi Nakai), a Japanese orphan brought up in China, is thrown into jail in the 1920s when he injured someone who threatened his lover's honor. There he befriends Liang Jianwang (Guo Tao from "Crazy Stone"), an innocent inmate with psychic abilities. Liang's predictions of calamity come true and Liu Lang suffers a great loss in his life. In the female quarters, there is a woman similarly stripped of all hope. Zhou Hong (Miao Pu) has been sentenced to death for poisoning her abusive husband, but her pregnancy brings an unwanted reprieve.

Punishment in the form of cleaning pig pens gives them the unexpected chance to bond over shared odors. Even though the male and female prisoners are segregated, the two grow to savor every moment of being in each other's presence, no matter how far apart physically. They cling to an ancient legend about the phoenix signifying that their Zodiac destinies will cross. As a result, they survive decades of hardship and separation believing they can be together one day.

The relentless documentation of human suffering and tragedies both personal and en masse in an inclement natural and social environment makes the two hours running time seem like a life-sentence itself. Some "Papillon"-like escapades and outdoor scenes come as a welcome relief but they are as rare as amnesties.

Thankfully, distinguished Japanese actor Kiichi Nakai's impassioned performance helps to alleviate the heaviness of theme and content. Reducing dubbed Mandarin language to a minimum, Nakai delivers a world of eloquent emotions with his rich body language and complex facial expressions. He invests his character with dignity, demonstrating both stolid endurance, and a raging will to fight even when the match is completely rigged against him. Miao Pu also gives a demonstrative performance that generates sparks in their scenes together.

New Wave Co/Kadokawa Pictures
Writer/director: Jin Chen
Screenwriter: Shen Jie
Producers: Kiichi Nakai, Naoyuki Sakagami
Executive producer/producer: Shirley Kao
Executive producers: Cai Guanshen, Han Hongfei
Director of photography: Meng Xiaoqing
Production designer: Zhou Yisha
Music: S.E.N.S.
Liu Lang: Kiichi Nakai
Zhou Hong: Miao Pu
Liang Jiawang: Guo Tao
Running time 121 minutes
No MPAA rating