The greatest comfort of genre films is that, if you know what you’re getting into, you can more or less assume you’re going to have a good time. With Cliff Walkers, the new 1930s espionage thriller from iconic Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, the promise of covert spy cleverness and vague double-crosses is made early on. With a web of intrigue more tangled than a box of Red Vines and brisk characterizations clad in thick clothes to guard against the heavy Northern Chinese snowfall, Cliff Walkers may lose you at times. But even if you’re not sure why this guy is trying to deceive that guy, Yimou is a skilled stylist whose confidence with his setpieces and affinity for film history makes this high-stakes game of Clue amidst the occupation of China well worth strapping in for.
Director: Zhang Yimou
Release Date: April 30, 2021
With the Japanese invading China in the early 1930’s, establishing puppet regimes in the North and committing brutal atrocities against the Chinese, a team of Communist Chinese agents are sent into the white-out, cold landscape of the North to extract a survivor of one of the Japanese death camps. Hoping to shine international light on the atrocities being committed, the team splits up behind enemy lines, encountering no shortage of counter-spies serving the Manchukuo puppet state, and double agents trying desperately to aid their Communist allies.
The aforementioned vague twistiness of Cliff Walkers (formerly known as Impasse) means that sometimes I felt pangs of confusion as to who knew what, when. The coherence a film like this (“spy films”) relies so heavily on the audience being able to follow which characters know minor details, like double agent Zhou’s (Yu Hewei) gutsy toeing of the line with his Manchukuo superiors. How much info he spills, like knowing the Communist’s tendency to mark movie posters on an outdoor venue for communications, might leave a viewer not entirely sure just who’s on which side. But for that same reason, Cliff Walkers makes for the sort of satisfying viewing that an audience catching this would likely expect.
Zhang’s style is one immediately recognizable: whether it’s the nearly-desaturated, rainy slow-motion of Shadow or the vibrant melodrama of Hero, his is a look difficult to miss. But by those examples, Zhang is often associated with modern Chinese wuxia, regaling the tales of martial heroes or parables of folkloric legend. Stepping into Cliff Walkers though, even though he’s trading kung-fu kicks for spy tricks, Zhang does a remarkable job of reeling in some of his more ostentatious visual flair while still being true to himself, and satisfying the needs of genre junkies.
This the sort of film where people walk hurriedly down snowy streets, clad in fedoras and long coats, checking their cigarette cases for a reflection over their shoulder to see if they’re being watched. A movie where abstract codes are scrawled out on the walls of train carriages, and dedicated agents will tell others to shoot at them--so long as the shot doesn’t kill. If you like this stuff (like me), you’ll find a ton to enjoy in Cliff Walkers.
Zhang stages car chases and shootouts well enough, though admittedly there’s not always the sort of deep impact I’d hope for with violence and action of that caliber in a film like this, sometimes the film score playing a little too romantically, or the edit a little too snappy. There’s a lack of dread to much of the action in Cliff Walkers, perhaps due to the somewhat weak characterization. For all the suffering lead agent Zhang (Zhang Yi) endures, I felt like there wasn’t a lot for me to go on or sympathize with, even though the character simultaneously struggles to find his estranged children, lost in the tumult of Manchukuo. Cliff Walkers can at times run into the problem of these dark figures in the snow becoming somewhat dehumanized, making the drama of the stylizations fall flat. Still, it’s a testament to Zhang’s direction that the film marches on.
His direction, as well as clear passion for cinema itself, with twangs of harmonica on the score recalling Ennio Morricone’s work on classic Sergio Leone westerns. Meanwhile, a theater that plays crucially into the espionage can frequently be seen to advertise Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. As a scholar of film and clear lover of it, Zhang’s period piece exudes a tactile, tangible nostalgia, despite the grim machinations of the plot.
Not likely to set the world on fire with a story that can be a little too convoluted, Cliff Walkers is still a mission well worth undertaking for lovers of labyrinthine plot and intricate covert dances, cold steel flashing in the snowy streets and secret messages crumpled and burned to cover the tracks. If any of these images spark your interest, Cliff Walkers might be an edge worth approaching.