Cliff Walkers: The Spies Who Stayed Out in the Cold, by David Bax
He may have spent his career wildly hopping genres, from historical melodrama (Raise the Red Lantern) to wuxia epic (Hero) to gangster flick (Shanghai Triad) to Coen brothers remake (A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop) to however you would classify The Great Wall but, no matter what mode he’s working in, you can expect grandeur from a Zhang Yimou film. His latest, Cliff Walkers, a spy thriller that cuts away pretty much everything but the thrilling spy stuff, is no exception. With lush period detail and gorgeously snowy cityscapes, it keeps your eyes wide open just as much as it keeps your heart briskly beating.
Cliff Walkers concerns four Soviet-trained, communist Chinese spies who are dropped into a wintery territory in 1930s China controlled by the occupying Japanese and their puppet Chinese government. The foursome’s actual mission–something to do with secrets smuggled out of a Japanese prisoner of war camp–is largely beside the point because they are made immediately aware that someone has sold them out and their presence is known to the enemy. Now their chief concern is getting out alive. Splitting up the team and eventually adding another main character–an undercover communist embedded in the puppet government’s security organization–means the the plot minutiae sometimes becomes difficult to track. But if you’re thinking too much about that, you’re paying attention to the wrong things. The many pleasures of Cliff Walkers have little to do with its narrative.
If there’s a reason for the film to exist beyond the many visual and visceral delights it has to offer, it’s as a government-approved piece of nationalist propaganda; it’s even dedicated to the many communists who fought during this chaotic and painful time in China’s history. If making Cliff Walkers is part of an attempt on Zhang’s part to get his censored, reportedly very personal One Second finally released, I hope he’s successful. But if he isn’t, we still have a good movie to watch.
Zhang seemed to come late to action cinema (I haven’t actually seen 1989’s Codename Cougar but it’s generally described more as a thriller). After making his name in the late 80s and throughout the 90s making historical dramas, 2002’s Hero seemed at the time–at least to me–like a surprising departure. That was before I actually saw it, though. Turns out he directs action like a champ and without losing any of his signature emotional sweep. The same is true of Cliff Walkers, which is often as yearning and mournful as it is breathless and bloody.
In excising the talky connective tissue that one would expect to link the movie’s bottomless succession of set-pieces, Zhang and screenwriter Quan Yongxian have essentially built a live-action videogame. At any given moment, you are experiencing this world as one of five characters. The circumstances and settings change from scene to scene but the objective remains the same: Escape.
Thus, the vague onscreen chapter titles begin to feel more like separate levels. As such, they predictably grow larger, more difficult and more intense as the movie proceeds, culminating in a spectacular car chase and shootout. Cliff Walkers may not feel like essential Zhang when compared with his festival and awards hits but, in its own way, it is quintessential Zhang.