The father-daughter director duo loses some battles but wins the war…
“From left to right, one get the driver, one get the passenger,” a voice comes from an empty, snowy hill. “Three, two, one!” Ten rifle shots and silent goes a five-vehicle US caravan.
This is how the story proper of Snipers begins after it provides the background via a brief survivor’s narration accompanied by historical footage. Set in 1952 during the Korean War, the story takes place against the backdrop of Chinese “Cold Gun” movement, a guerrilla warfare initiative of small-scale sniper attacks. In 96-minute running time, the two directors, Zhang Yimou and Zhang Mo, orchestrates a confrontation between two groups of sharpshooters. As China’s 5th squad is sent on an extraction mission to bring back their spy carrying highly-classified intelligence that could turn the war in their favour, they walk into an elaborate trap set by seven “elite” US marksmen who are tasked to bring in their leader alive.
This methodical and phlegmatic leader, Liu Wenwu, brilliantly brought to life by the quotidian quality of Zhang Yu (Dying to Survive, An Elephant Sitting Still), is inspired by Zhang Taofang, one of the most lethal snipers in history reportedly credited with 214 kills in 32 days during the Korean War. His nine young comrades in the squad are sketched rather haphazardly, save for one. An effective introduction to them in the form of a roll call follows the beginning sequence, but that’s virtually all we get to know about them.
The usual clichés are all there with one soldier thinking of a name for his newly-born son back home and another reminiscing about his wife while wearing a pair of green gloves she’s sent him. While the lack of flashbacks or other forms of character backstory minimizes further use of worn-out tropes, it’s also because of this that the later tear-jerking moments don’t quite hit the right emotional octave. The only exception to this is one Da Yong (Chen Yongsheng, who also appeared in Zhang Yimou’s Cliff Walkers), Liu’s dewy-eyed protégé who is a natural shot destined to eclipse him. One noteworthy and historically accurate aspect of the characters concerns language: the young Chinese troops speak Sichuanese dialect and not just Mandarin.
Overall, the father-daughter director duo shows commendable casting decisions – Snipers was the first or second feature for more than half the Chinese cast – and offers a balanced portrayal of both the Chinese and American sides. Zhang Mo, who learned the craft at NYU Tisch, was responsible for directing the US side, including casting and going over the script with the actors, according to one interview. The result is an undeniable success.
The Americans, led by John (Jonathan Kos-Read), are not your usual arrogant and cringe-inducing “foreigners” often reduced to one-dimensional caricatures or laughing stocks or both in mainland cinema (I’m looking at you, The Battle at Lake Changjin II). Instead, they are seen as similarly human, who just happen to fight for the other side and with a different mission, who acknowledge the ingenuity and bravery of their Chinese counterparts.
Not only are their dialogue and manner of speech realistic and natural, but also their depiction doesn’t readily play into the discourse of China’s suffering at the hands of the evil, imperialist West—a discourse that is not without its merits but an uncritical, exclusive emphasis on which has been used to gloss over China’s own imperial history for far too long. One last note regarding the characters: we finally have a Chinese-made Korean War film with a Korean character (I’m looking at you again, The Battle at Lake Changjin II)!
The cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, a long-time collaborator of Zhang senior since his 2002 martial arts epic Hero, follows the sniper film convention and puts the camera inside the rifle scope, allowing us to watch the target in closeup. One only wishes the camera frame stayed there instead of giving us a bullet-time scene with slapdash effects for every single lethal shot by the Chinese snipers.
Some unsubtle parts will inevitably come off as a tad bit excessive or outright redundant, especially for non-Chinese audiences. In one scene, for example, three of the Chinese combatants repeatedly sing a patriotic song aloud to keep awake the wounded Liang Liang (Liu Yitie), the undercover agent they’re trying to rescue. It’s hard to listen to the lyrics—“Good sons and daughters of China, let’s unite together to help North Korea resist the U.S. and defeat the evil Americans”—for two full minutes and not find it off-putting at all.
Moreover, similar to Battle II, the story lays a heavy emphasis on China’s underdog situation vis-à-vis their technologically advanced, affluent enemy. We watch Da Yong lament that their entire squad has only one pair of binoculars while “the Yanks have everything” and we see how the Americans are imagined by the filmmakers as sort of a Captain America, when one of them says during a stalemate, “I got a tank, I got a gun, I got plenty of bullets. I can do this all day.”
Nevertheless, Snipers proves to be a success that is rough around the edges. The screenwriter Chen Yu (who’s also working on Zhang Yimou’s next feature, Under the Light) sends his protagonists on a mission not to save the country or “the people,” but just to rescue a fellow soldier. The decision to focus on the characters rather than overtly indulging in war or patriotism brings together a welcome change to the recent Chinese military blockbusters. Although those characters could have been developed further and better.
Zhang Mo’s directorial prowess still awaits to be proven, whose debut and only solo film was Suddenly Seventeen (2016), a mediocre time-travel romcom. But if she’s as dedicated to the craft as his 71-year-old father, we will surely watch her career with great interest.
Snipers is currently in cinemas in mainland China.
The 2020 trailer for Zhang Yimou’s Under the Light is playing before Snipers in cinemas. Who knows, maybe we’ll finally get to watch it this year!