'The Climbers' ('Pan deng zhe'): Film Review

The Climbers Still 2  - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Edko Films
Scales the expected cinematic and patriotic heights.

Hong Kong producer Tsui Hark and director Daniel Lee detail the 1975 Chinese ascent of Everest for a National Day blockbuster starring Wu Jing and Zhang Ziyi.

As the world’s tallest peak (Mauna Kea excepted), Mount Everest has by this point been mythologized and romanticized by every nation and every team that has ever scaled its 8,000-plus meters since Edmund Hillary in 1953 — and possibly George Mallory in 1924. Its natural hazards have played a part in painting those who make it to the summit as wounded warriors: Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest and Jon Krakauer's best-seller Into Thin Air, both about one of the mountain’s deadliest seasons, are just two examples.

Into this tradition comes Daniel Lee’s The Climbers, a suitably spectacular and ridiculous big-budget adventure timed for release to celebrate China’s National Day on Tuesday. Anchored by The Wandering Earth and Wolf Warrior 2 star Wu Jing, The Climbers goes heavy on bombast and heart-pounding peril (so many storms) in detailing the first documented north face ascent of Qomolangma — the local name for Everest — in 1975 to the glory of China. This is going to go down smoothly in China over the holiday, and with Wu in the lead, the film could prove a modest hit with overseas action fans, though the rah-rah jingoism could put off some Asia-Pacific markets.

The adventure begins with Fang Wuzhou (Wu) making an attempt to summit in 1960, where he loses most of his team to an avalanche. In the ensuing years, China enters into a “harsher era” (a diplomatic way to refer to The Cultural Revolution) and gives up its mountaineering aspirations. Fang, however, stays in shape, even though he’s shunned, and doubt is thrown on the truth of the ‘60 climb. But upon being told the first Chinese ascent is invalid due to lack of photographic evidence (Fang dropped the camera to save a teammate), the powers that be decide to go again and do a survey — because in Fang’s former captain’s words, “This is our mountain.” Nepal might have something to say about that.

The Climbers then sets out on a getting-the-band-back-together montage, the old group including Qu Songlin (Zhang Yi, Ash Is Purest White), who lost half an appendage to frostbite when he tried to finish the ’60 climb barefoot (that’s dedication) and Tibetan guide Jiebu (Lawang Lop). The new guys — of what appears to be about 50 — include photographer Li Guoliang (Jing Boran); lifelong Everest enthusiast Yang Guang (Hu Ge); Fang’s old flame, meteorologist Xu Ying (Zhang Ziyi); and pretty assistant Sherpa Mudan (Quni Ciren), who takes a liking to Guoliang.

With all that romance simmering, you know someone is eventually going to take a fatal fall or cough blood into their palm. But before that, to quote Matt Damon’s Mark Watney from The Martian, team leader Fang has to "Wu Jing" the mountain to make it to the top and reassess Everest’s height for all the world to see (though an Indian team confirmed its height in 1955).

Hong Kong director Lee (14 Blades, White Vengeance) pilots the Tsui Hark-styled action flourishes choreographed by Alan Ng and cinematographer Tony Cheung’s sweeping camera with aplomb, and actually manages to wring a few genuinely white-knuckle moments from among the silliness (50 guys and there’s only one camera?). The first avalanche, the last leg at Lhakpa-Ri (three times) and a lunatic nighttime storm featuring a rogue boulder stand out as highlights despite Henry Lai’s on-the-nose score and some wonky CGI. Imax viewings could go a long way to boosting the inherently photogenic images; much of the film was shot on location in Tibet.

And that’s really what the film is about: the mountain and the climb. The reality-based “characters” are given short shrift: Fang is painfully capable and compassionate; Qu is bitter over losing the camera 15 years before and living with the shame; Li and Yang are handsome; Mudan and Jiebu are Tibetan, and they’re just there to nod approvingly and give thumbs up. None of the relationships transcend narrative function, and so death, rage and reconciliations ring hollow. Too many endings and romantic subplots that do nothing but bloat the running time and detract from the snowy action could easily have been jettisoned by editors Tang Man To and Li Lin for a leaner, loftier final product.

Production companies: Visualizer, Shanghai Film Group
U.S. distributor: Well Go USA
Cast: Wu Jing, Zhang Ziyi, Zhang Yi, Jing Boran, Hu Ge,
Wang Jing-Chun, He Lin, Chen Long, Liu Xiaofeng, Quni Ciren, Lawang Lop, Duo Bujie, Jackie Chan
Director: Daniel Lee
Screenwriters: Daniel Lee, A Lai
Producers: Tsui Hark, Susanna Tsang
Executive producer: Ren Zhong Lun
Director of photography: Tony Cheung
Production designer: Daniel Lee
Costume designer: Debby Wong
Editors: Tang Man To, Li Lin
Music: Henry Lai
World sales:
Edko Films

In Putonghua