China generally has had friendly relations with Nepal, yet it still has found a way to have a territorial dispute with the smaller nation. The area of contention is majestic Mt. Everest. The truth is, the famous mountain peak really ought to be under the jurisdiction of a free and independent Tibetan government. Regardless, producer Tsui Hark and Wu Jing, the star of the Wolf Warrior franchise will do their best to bolster China’s case with Daniel Lee’s The Climbers, which opens today in IMAX and this Friday on conventional screens.
In 1960, Fang Wuzhou led the first Chinese expedition to successfully summit Everest. Unfortunately, they lost their camera and a good portion of their party along the way, so the international mountaineering establishment (including the Soviets who trained them) did not recognize their claims. For a while, the country went utterly insane with Maoist ideology, but by 1975 they were finally ready to mount another Everest campaign.
Fang will be the assault captain. Xu Ying, his college girlfriend and the love of his life, will serve as director of the meteorological team. Qu Songlin will be the deputy chief of the campaign, but he will have effective operational control (since the top boss is basically a political figure head). Qu was a veteran of the campaign, who has never forgiven Fang for saving his angry, bitter hide, instead of the camera. Jiebu will be the third returning veteran from 1960, who will lead the advance team.
As you would expect from anything Tsui produces, The Climbers has plenty of spectacle. Frankly, he and Lee throw so many avalanches and gale force winds at the mountaineers, it is hard to believe they could possibly have the strength to make it to the summit—and safely come back down again. As most fans of mountaineering and alpinist movies can tell you, the descent is the most dangerous part, but that challenge gets skipped over in the film’s coverage of both campaigns.
The stunt work and visual effects are impressive, but The Climbers is not nearly as engaging as other mountain climbing dramas, such as The Himalayas from South Korea and Climber’s High from Japan, because it lacks a human touch. Granted, it is hard to compete with Hwang Jung-min, who is always an electric screen presence, but the characters in Lee’s film always seem distractingly conscious of their roles striving for greater Chinese glory.
Wu Jing and Zhang Ziyi have decent star-crossed chemistry together, as Fang and Xu, but his strained relationship with Yi Zhang’s Qu comes across as forced, just like their inevitable reconciliation. There are about a dozen other task-fulfilling characters on the expedition, but they are largely indistinguishable from each other. That even includes Yang Guang, who is played by a surprise big name movie star during the epilogue set decades later. However, the most problematic portrayal might be that of the ethnic Tibetan Mudan, whose shared pride in the Chinese milestone will be an insult to most of the occupied Tibetan people.
There are three or four really tremendous hanging-from-the-mountain-face sequences in The Climbers, but the constant jingoistic propaganda often brings the drama to a screeching halt. As an example, much is made of a drive to measure the true altitude of Everest’s summit, but the 1975 measurement merely confirmed the findings of an Indian study conducted in 1955. Given its merits are all visual, The Climbers is probably best seen on IMAX, but anyone interested in the climber’s mindset should rent The Himalayas instead. Recommended only for fans of dangling-from-finger-tips action sequences, The Climbers opens today (9/30) in IMAX, at the AMC Empire and AMC 34th St.