Zhang Yimou’s latest is the veteran director’s first foray into the spy genre…
Though it faces a tough challenge at the overloaded local box office, Zhang Yimou’s Cliff Walkers (which previously went by Impasse) is certainly one of the most eagerly awaited Chinese films of the year for international audiences, the director’s first since his last offering One Second was unexpectedly yanked from Berlin at the last moment. For his latest, the director has chosen something considerably less controversial, a 1930s spy thriller, his first in the genre, dedicated to “the heroes of the Revolution” and featuring an all-star cast including Zhang Yi (Operation Red Sea), Yu Hewei (I Am Not Madame Bovary), Qin Hailu (The Pluto Moment) and Zhu Yawen (The Captain).
The film is set during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria the 1930s, beginning with four Soviet-trained Chinese communist party spies being parachuted into the snowy wilds on a mysterious secret mission. Led by Zhang (Zhang Yi), the team consists of his wife Yu (Qin Hailu), a younger man called Chuliang (Zhu Yawen) and his girlfriend Lan (Liu Haocun), and is split into mismatching couples as they head to Harbin by train, a journey fraught with danger as it quickly becomes clear that a traitor has been leaking their plans to the puppet state authorities. Things don’t go quite according to plan, and once in Harbin they find themselves isolated from each other, trying to stay one step ahead of Security Chief Gao (Ni Dahong), while deciding whether to trust Zhou (Yu Hewei), an apparent communist mole in the enemy’s taskforce.
With its period setting, characters and narrative, Cliff Walkers is a fairly familiar-sounding proposition, recalling Korean productions like Kim Jee-woon’s 2016 The Age of Shadows, though the film it most resembles is Chen Kuo-fu and Gao Qunshu’s 2009 The Message, particularly through its scenes of torture. All the usual spy elements are present and correct, though it’s entertaining to see how Zhang Yimou makes use of the tricks of the spy trade, secret messages, codes, hidden blades and suicide pills, making them fun, if not exactly fresh. Where the film does have a different feel is in its wintery setting, having been shot on location in Harbin (apparently during temperatures of -40c), and with all the snow and ice giving it an appropriately chilly atmosphere – the only downside to this is that during the first act it can be a little hard to tell the main characters apart, since they spend most of the time wrapped up in thick fur costumes.
As with other espionage thrillers of the type, Cliff Walkers initially seems to be running the risk of becoming convoluted and muddled, switching between a collection of protagonists and its stakes being oddly unclear. Thankfully this never really becomes the case, with Zhang and writer Quan Yongxian seeming increasingly uninterested in the actual details of the mission, and while there’s some chat about Japanese atrocities, this never becomes the focus, and even once the nature of the operation is revealed, it’s strangely never given much weight. The characters are similarly sketchy, with only a few clumsy, half-hearted stabs at backstories. Not much effort was made to engage the viewer with them, instead treating them like pieces on a tightly controlled chessboard. This works well, and while it means that the film doesn’t have much emotional impact, on the plus side it’s less melodramatic than might have been expected, and not as overtly nationalistic. Zhang instead is left with freer rein to explore the genre form, and the film moves along at a fast pace, rushing through set-pieces and plot twists, serving up some effective surprises and tension.
Most pleasing for fans of Zhang’s work is that Cliff Walkers is visually impressive throughout, with some fine cinematography by Zhao Xiaoding, making great use of snow, shadows and neon. The production values are similarly eye-catching, with some great sets and costumes, and with key Harbin locations like the Asia Cinema and Martyr Hotel having been painstakingly recreated for the shoot. Zhang is on assured form, handling the action scenes with confidence and flair, and the film features lots of fluid camerawork that stays just the right side of being stylised – it does feel a bit like a Johnnie To film in places, and has several enjoyable Hitchcockian and noir touches as well as Charlie Chaplin references. As well as a number of shoot-outs and chases, the film gets surprisingly violent and bloody in places, and this gives it a welcome hard edge and sense of danger, something which helps make sure it never feels overlong. If anything, the film’s conclusion is rather abrupt, giving the impression that the characters have outlived their usefulness to Zhang, something which is arguably preferable to another dragged out ending of melodrama and neatly tied off threads.
Although Cliff Walkers is nothing new, it’s an impeccably made and fun film, and it’s great to see a director like Zhang Yimou on top form and diving into genre filmmaking. There’s a real love of cinema on show here, and though not without its flaws, it’s a fine piece of genre filmmaking and one of the better Mainland blockbusters of late.