Cliff Walkers Review: Zhang Yimou’s Gorgeous, Confusing Spy Thriller

The unpredictable auteur in the back of “Carry the Pink Lantern” and “Hero” but in addition “The Nice Wall” delivers a undercover agent yarn that is laborious to pin down.

You by no means truly know what you’re going to get with a Zhang Yimou film at the present time. However, most likely that was once at all times the case to a definite stage. As soon as a number one mild of the so-called 5th Era of Chinese language Filmmakers, Zhang graduated from the Beijing Movie Academy with the imaginative and prescient and self belief of a well-established auteur; his debut function “Pink Sorghum” gained the Golden Undergo on the 1987 Berlinale, paving the way in which for an unimpeachable string of modern social dramas (“The Tale of Qiu Ju”) and florid ancient epics (“Ju Do,” “Carry the Pink Lantern,” and the sweeping 1994 masterpiece “To Reside”) that tested the plight of the running folks and raised the global profile of Chinese language cinema even if they had been banned from screening within the nation’s theaters.

Regularly overpassed, on the other hand, is Zhang’s little-seen 2nd movie, a frivolous motion mystery referred to as “Codename Cougar” about an airliner that’s hijacked through terrorists from Taiwan. So it was once laborious to are expecting Zhang’s subsequent transfer even earlier than he went mainstream with “Hero” on the flip of the millennium, or appeared to expand a nationalist streak through directing the Beijing Olympics ceremonies and a few cheesy Chinese language-American co-productions like “The Nice Wall.” The one predictable factor about Zhang’s contemporary profession trail is that it veered in a brand new path as soon as the filmmaker began to really feel like a shiny propagandist for the Communist Birthday celebration; 2018’s “Shadow” was once a high-contrast wuxia spectacle that bore the hallmarks of a go back to shape, whilst 2019’s “One 2d” was once pulled from the Berlinale mere days earlier than its premiere as it ran afoul of the Chinese language censors. It has but to peer the sunshine of day.

Now, Zhang returns with a lavish but ultra-convoluted undercover agent mystery that loses the plot virtually as quickly because it begins. But when maintaining a tally of the callous betrayals, secret codes, and tricksy double brokers proves to be extra bother than it’s value, there’s one thing hypnotic about the way in which that “Cliff Walkers” continuously forces its characters to invite the similar query that cinephiles had been looking ahead to Zhang to reply to for the reason that flip of the century: Whose facet are you on?

Don’t dangle your breath for a transparent takeaway on both sides of the digital camera. For something, “Cliff Walkers” is the type of film the place the plot thickens till you’ll be able to rarely sink your enamel into it anymore. For any other, the movie’s nationalist bent is so pronounced — from the elemental main points of its premise right down to a final identify card that dedicates it “to all of the heroes of the Revolution” — that it virtually appears like a pressured confession for no matter Xi Jinping’s censors discovered so legal about “One 2d.”

It’s simplest during the uncooked spectacle that Zhang captures on display screen {that a} other rationalization steadily crystallizes into view: Zhang dreamed of framing a twisty espionage mystery in opposition to the snowy backdrop of Eastern-controlled Manchukuo, and knew appeasing the federal government was once the one means he may just rebuild part of downtown Harbin to check its 1930s imperialist veneer. That isn’t essentially the “proper” rationalization in any sense of the phrase, however “Cliff Walkers” is on this sort of sugar excessive over cinema’s transportive energy, it feels adore it was once directed through a child in a sweet retailer.

Taking into consideration the film’s pro-Communist proclivities, it is helping that the heroes of “Cliff Walkers” are nobly seeking to reveal a real conflict crime to the remainder of the arena. The motion starts with 4 Chinese language operatives — two {couples} — parachuting into the frozen tundra of Manchukuo on a challenge to rescue the one survivor of a loss of life camp bloodbath perpetrated through collaborators of Japan’s puppet govt. The {couples} cut up up once they contact down at the snow, mismatching companions in order that their love for every different can’t be exploited within the tournament of having captured. Zhang (Zhang Yi) and the deceptively fresh-faced Lan (emerging famous person Liu Haocun) move a method, whilst Zhang’s spouse Yu (Qin Hailu) and Chuliang (Zhu Yawen) move any other. When one group falls into the clutches of a few double brokers earlier than they even make it to Harbin, the opposite group has to in some way relay that message with out surroundings off any alarms.

This turns out ripe for the stuff of simple suspense — it’s the type of premise that Quentin Tarantino would luckily stretch till it snapped — however the script that Zhang and co-writer Quan Yongxian adapt from the latter’s brief tale is much less excited about straining pressure than tying knots. With the notable exception of an early set piece aboard a crowded passenger teach (during which the groups are shut to one another, however pressured to keep up a correspondence in coded messages written with the condensation a WC reflect) and a chase during the streets of Harbin shot with dazzling aplomb, “Cliff Walkers” spends maximum of its time on cryptic loyalty exams in shadowy backrooms.

The risk all for deciding who to believe is palpable, as are the complications that include it. Each are magnified through a script that spares little time to flesh out its characters. Zhang is a former journalist whose reporting abilities serve him effectively as a undercover agent. Lan is adorably childlike, however she educated for this in the us along side the remainder of her group, and he or she’ll mess somebody up who’s silly sufficient to decrease their guard. That’s about it. The movie is shadowed through a tearjerking subplot in regards to the two kids whom Zhang and Yu had been pressured to desert when the Eastern invaded, however sentiment makes for an ungainly have compatibility in a film so considering spycraft that it kind of feels to disregard why those characters are taking part in cat-and-mouse within the first position.

If Zhang makes it transparent that puppet governments aren’t any picnic, he’s additionally completely punch-drunk in the case of the romance of thrashing them at their very own sport. Shot on location in subzero Harbin temperatures so chilly that “Cliff Walkers” turns out to provide A/C through osmosis, the movie heats up each time the motion spills onto the immaculately dressed streets. Even for the ones folks who don’t have an indexical reminiscence of what town seemed like all the way through its Manchukuo days, constructions just like the Asia Cinema and the fittingly named Martyr Resort had been rebuilt with such glaring care — and at such nice expense — that “Cliff Walkers” performs like a time system.

Likewise, the ever present snow isn’t simply a chic backdrop, it’s additionally an energetic panorama as shifty and unstable as any of the characters, and lends the film a gauzy really feel that enhances the volatile dream common sense of its plotting. Even the ones baffled through the “what” of all of it could be so entranced through the “when” and “the place” they don’t even understand your entire loss of cliffs, or folks strolling them (the unique identify, “Deadlock,” will have to now not had been attractive sufficient for global markets). Whilst there are some riches to be discovered below the skin for somebody who appears like staring at this with a float chart, Zhang is so obviously seduced through the spell of his personal film magic that the whole lot else appears like an inadvertent facet impact. He’s on his facet, and he’ll forge no matter strategic alliances he must to be able to keep there.

Grade: C

“Cliff Walkers” is now taking part in in choose theaters.

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