Writer/director Zhang Yimou is many things, but subtle is not one of them. His projects often feature beautiful cinematography and elegant performances while exploring the complexities of humankind, resulting in films that are often far more poetic than narratively straight. In his latest project, Cliff Walkers, Zhang jumps into the spy genre for the first time by adapting an original story by writer Quan Yongxian which explores the historical period of pre-World War II China when Japan invaded the country, specifically following a version of the freedom fighters who would sacrifice whatever is needed in order to liberate their people. In light of the conflict Zhang endured with China’s censors to get his 2020 film One Second approved for screening due to perceived anti-nationalist ideas, the turn toward a pro-Chinese narrative may seem like reparations. However, under close examination, there’s something deeper being explored about loyalty, faith, and an individual’s right to live without threat of tyranny.
Based In 1931, Japan invaded China and set up secret camps in Northeast China to deal with dissenters. Believing that unearthing the truth will set China free from the grip of Japan, four spies, divided into two teams, are sent in to recover an asset to turn the tide on a global stage. The mission itself is a simple infiltration and extraction until the first thing goes wrong, and then another, until no one knows who to trust.
A lot of spy thrillers make sure that the audience is well-settled with their protagonists before the primary objective begins. Think of the Mission: Impossible films, the more recent Fast & Furious films, Spy Game, and the James Bond films. Creatives want the audience to feel something for the characters before the hammer falls, so, when it does, there’s an increase in tension and concern and a reason, if you will, for the audience to maintain their intrigue. Zhang’s tale shuffles off all of this and throws the audience in after a brief text introduction. You’re given a modest set-up and then it’s four operatives (Zhang Yi, Qin Hailu, Zhu Yawen, and Liu Haocun) parachuting into the snow-covered wilderness, the mission already underway. This may frustrate some as it requires the audience to lean in immediately and linger on every word of dialogue for clues as to who the characters are, something that’s even more difficult considering the various furs the characters are bundled in and the steadily falling snow obscuring certain details. The rest of the film is like this, only giving us as much as naturally makes sense in any given scene, eschewing unnecessary exposition for only that which the mission requires. In this regard, Cliff Walkers is a thrilling experience from start to finish as you’re either all-in on mission success or you’re just bidding time to see how the cards play.
The detail work for Cliff Walkers is evident from the title to the costuming. The original title is Impasse, meaning “a situation in which no progress is possible,” making the change to Cliff Walkers seem more thrilling when it’s actually equally accurate. The term “cliff walk” refers to “… a walkway or trail which follows close to the edge or foot of a cliff …” The characters within the film are certainly on that, tracking an obscured path where any misstep leads to both mission failure and certain death. Uncertainty isn’t just whether the protagonist spies will succeed, but whether the opposition, led by agent Zhou (Yu Hewei) and overseen by Section Chief Gao (Ni Dahong), will prevent mission success. There’s also the way that nature plays heavily into each scene. In some cases, it’s human nature and the internal sense of right/wrong or gut instinct, whereas in others, it’s nature itself, with the snow, ice, and wind playing significant parts in escape or capture. There is treachery possible with every footfall, something which Zhang, frequent DP collaborator Zhao Xiaoding (Shadow), and composer Cho Young Wuk (The Handmaiden) make present by sight or sound with few breaks to catch ones breath. It certainly helps that Zhang’s script presents intelligent characters whose actions and reactions belie incredible training, commitment, and cognitive flexibility. Spy craft is all about being able to predict the opponent, to anticipate action and defense, which is where so much of Cliff Walkers derives its internal tension. Are these individuals up to the task? If yes, how simply or complicated are they able to position themselves positively? If no, how do they restrict collateral damage to the mission? Being as removed historically from the events that the film takes place, there’s less a sense of nationalism, but an ode to freedom fighters.
For some, the piling on and on of symbolism might make the film seem flimsy under scrutiny or somehow less thrilling. To that, I encourage audiences to remember Zhang’s films like Shadow (2018) or Hero (2002), which explored similar notions of necessary violence, sacrifice, and subterfuge without towing the line to traditional narrative expectations. This will not appeal to general audiences looking for a cinematic snack, but to audiences hungry for a meal of drama with weight. Though there are moments of intensity (fisticuffs, shoot-outs, escapes, and captures befitting a wartime spy thriller), this is not The Great Wall (2016), which relied so heavily on spectacle that it’s nothing more than frivolous fare.
As we wrap, it may seem strange not to explore the performances from the cast in a film that’s as equally character-driven as it is technically impressive. Unlike most spy thrillers, which zero in on a central cast, Cliff Walkers is entirely an ensemble piece with each role fitting in perfectly, arriving as needed, and knocking it out of the park. There is literally no one in charge, short of Section Chief Gao, and even he’s used sparingly. When he is, though, Ni Dahong dominates with a whisper of a word or the slightest of glances. The scenes revolve around the narrative and what’s needed versus giving any of the cast a spotlight moment, and this may feel unexpected by American audiences. This isn’t an Ethan Hunt, James Bond, or Protagonist (Tenet) story nor is it a star vehicle. In this way, Cliff Walkers stands out tremendously for subverting expectations at almost every turn. So much so that the weaknesses are about as subjective as the strengths.
In select theaters beginning April 30th, 2021.
For more information, head to CMC Pictures’s official website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.