Another classy Chinese action thriller whose dazzling style seems to take place in a deliberate narrative void, Cliff Walkers (previously titled Impasse) marks leading Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s first foray into the espionage genre. Following on the heels of his censorship-plagued One Second, which was abruptly withdrawn from the 2019 Berlin Film Festival and only came out in China last November, the new film would seem to the naked eye to have nothing for the censors to object to; in fact, it is dedicated to “the heroes of the Revolution.” What foreign audiences will take away is not the negligible storyline but a visually entrancing parade of attractive actors in a pleasingly fluid spy-counterspy dance.
Though bound to make most of its millions domestically, aided by its well-known cast, Cliff Walkers is being released day-and-date in China and the U.S. on April 30. Having one big English-language co-production under his belt — the Matt Damon-starring, U.S.-China historical fantasy The Great Wall — the director of Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern continues his exploration of genres in an essentially visual mode that is probably intended to pose no cultural obstacles to international audiences.
But what the film is actually about is something of a head-scratcher. It is set in the 1930s following the Japanese occupation of Manchukuo, a northeast puppet state that was once Chinese Manchuria. The atrocities committed by parts of the Japanese army during this period were recently dramatized in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy (best director award at Venice 2020). Here, again, the action is premised on the urgent need to get information out for the world to judge and act upon. In this case, the sole survivor of a Manchurian death camp must be smuggled out of China as an eyewitness to Japanese war crimes.
The Communist party sends in a Mission: Impossible team of four secret agents, who have been highly trained in the Soviet Union and who are ideologically determined to succeed. We meet them parachuting through the snow over a forest of fir trees and falling gracefully through their branches to the ground in a mesmerizing opener. This lyrical intro sets the scene for some soulful cinematography and atmospheric sequences that will drive the film in place of a convincing spy story.
The four are so bundled up, it takes the better part of the film to figure out who they are, given their lack of characterization and close-ups. Though the dialogue and editing need to be much clearer, we eventually discover they are couples: the married pair Zhang (Zhang Yi of Operation Red Sea) and Yu (Qin Hailu), and the younger Chuliang (Zhu Yawen) and his waif-like girlfriend Lan (Liu Haocun). Zhang, the team leader, remixes the couples, and they take off in different directions, heading for the northern capital of Harbin, where they are to rendezvous with the eyewitness.
But first, there are obstacles to overcome, codes to decipher and a bewildering series of turncoats, traitors and counterspies to unmask. The agents board a train to Harbin incognito and wait for a signal from an accomplice, but are double-crossed by a possible traitor. Fisticuffs follow. After that, the narrative becomes intricate enough to be safely ignored, especially since Zhang and Quan Yongxian’s screenplay doesn’t take the story nearly as seriously as the staging of sophisticated set-pieces. Many scenes enjoyably salute cinema past, from Charlie Chaplin’s potato dance in an excerpt from The Gold Rush, to a whistling tune heard in front of a firing squad that tips its hat to Sergio Leone.
Yu Hewei appears late in the tale as embedded secret agent Zhou, who has to liaise with the team while sidestepping the ambiguous sector chief and head torturer, Gao (Ni Dahong). Though at first she seems like an add-on ingenue to the mission, young Liu Haocun (who also appears in One Second) eventually comes across as the most individualized member of the team, capable not only of deciphering deep codes but of feeling pain for the tortured fates of others. Qin Hailu, who starred in Fruit Chan’s Durian Durian, has a memorable maternal moment.
Apart from the sassy costumes, production design by Lin Mu re-creates the old streets and buildings of Harbin with an aura of nostalgia, and it is with a sense of wonder that one views the elegance of a Chinese bookstore of the ’30s. Making the most of the freezing Harbin winter, DP Zhao Xiaoding dusts the entire cast with crystal snow, particularly their black hat brims. And snow becomes the key element in a gangster-ish chase scene in period cars, while the good spy/bad guy occupants eye each other, keeping one hand on the trigger.
Production companies: Emperor Film Production Co., China Film Co., Shanghai Film Group
Cast: Zhang Yi, Qin Hailu, Zhu Yawen, Liu Haocun, Yu Hewei, Ni Dahong, Li Naiwen, Yu Ailei, Fei Fan, Lei Jiayin, Sha Yi, Wang Naixun, Chan Yongsheng
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriters: Quan Yongxian, Zhang Yimou, based on Quan’s original story
Producers: Pang Liwei, Luca Liang
Executive producer: Fu Ruoqing
Director of photography: Zhao Xiaoding
Production designer: Lin Mu
Editor: Li Yongyi
Music: Cho Young Wuk
World sales: CMC Pictures