Saturday, May 01, 2021

Zhang Yimou’s Cliff Walkers

It is 1931. Japan has invaded Manchuria to build a series of vocational training schools and “de-radicalization” centers. That’s what they call prison camps in Xinjiang today. However, the Communist Party considered this a bad thing in the ‘30s, so they dispatched a quartet of agents to conduct a special mission against the Japanese occupiers in Zhang Yimou’s Cliff Walkers, which is now playing in New York.

Married couple Zhang and Yu and lovers Chuilang and Lan were trained in the USSR, which cared so much about the war in China, they declared war on Japan three days after the bombing of Nagasaki. Unfortunately, the four must split up into mismatched pairs immediately after parachuting into enemy territory. Zhang and Lan soon discover their underground network has been compromised and try to devise ways to warn Chuilang and Lu.

The objective of their mission is to smuggle out a prominent survivor of the “vocational schools,” so he can expose the horrific human rights abuses to the rest of the world. Their efforts will be sabotaged by betrayals from within, but they have their own highly placed mole as well.

Director Zhang and his design team spared no expenses recreating early 1930s Harbin, so the film looks terrific. Unfortunately, Quan Yongxian’s screenplay does little to establish the main characters, who are frequently heavily bundled-up, which frequently leads to viewer confusion. The most tangible distinction is Zhang and Yu are the ones looking for their abandoned children, who were last seen begging in front of Harbin’s international hotel.

By far the most interesting and compelling performance comes from Yu Hewei, as Zhou, an agent of the Japanese security service, who has his own agenda. Ironically, the next most memorable turn probably comes from Yu Ailel, as Jin, his immature rival.

Regardless, once Zhang Yimou settles into the cloak-and-dagger stuff, the film becomes a slick roller-coaster. There is no shortage of clever traps, betrayals and deceptions. There are some nifty vintage car chases and some atmospheric skulking around alleys. It all looks wonderfully cinematic, thanks to Zhang’s eye for visuals and his regular cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding’s bold, sweeping lens.

Despite the ineffective propaganda,
Cliff Walkers really is a fun film. Don’t beat yourself up if you lose track of who’s who—just assume they are backstabbing someone else. Recommended as an entertaining period espionage-war thriller, Cliff Walkers is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire.