Cliff Walkers, 2021.
Directed by Zhang Yimou.
Starring Hewei Yu, Yi Zhang, Hailu Qin, Haocun Liu, and Yawen Zhu.
Four Communist spies conduct a covert operation to extract a former prisoner of war from the puppet state of Manchukuo, but not everything goes according to plan.
Zhang Yimou can best be described as a mercurial filmmaker. Once a trendsetter in Chinese cinema churning out provocative dramas laced with heavy social commentary, Yimou appears to have altered his career path lately with regard to his creative outputs, and Cliff Walkers for better or worse isn’t any different. But that’s not to say that this film’s a subpar effort by the talented director, far from it. But Yimou’s proclivity of resorting to political pandering through the film medium since of late, may ultimately take a toll on an otherwise enviously sensational filmography. But I digress. Let us analyze Cliff Walkers simply based on its merits and get on with it.
Set in the 1930’s Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, Cliff Walkers follows the story of four Communist Party special operatives who embark on a perilous mission to track down and locate an ex-Chinese prisoner of war, in order to expose the unethical human experimentations and other dastardly war crimes committed by the notorious Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army. This quartet of spies-who are in fact two couples- split up once they land on terra firma, to avoid being compromised if captured. The doe-eyed Lan (Lui Haocun) and Zhang (Zhang Yi) go one way, while Chu (Zhu Yawen) and Zhang’s partner Yu (Qin Hailu) go in a different direction. However, their quest is one fraught with deadly betrayals, double agents and unexpected dangers, which complicates things for the separated lovers.
Touted as maestro Yimou’s first foray into the spy-thriller genre, I had dizzyingly high levels of expectations for Cliff Walkers and for the most it does deliver on its promises. The visuals, art direction and production values are indescribably lavish and jaw-droppingly breathtaking. Oscar nominated cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (House of Flying Daggers) lends his creative prowess to the proceedings, adding a surreal beauty to the bleak sub-zero environs of Harbin, while South Korean musician Jo Yeong-wook delivers an almost Ennio Morricone inspired score that surprisingly fits in with the movie’s wintry setting.
The performances are impressive across the board but the clear standouts were newcomer Lui Haocun as the child-like but incredibly capable Xiao Lan and Hewei Yu (A Writer’s Odyssey) as the duplicitous mole working for Chinese Community Party, who bring in their A-game to Yimou’s epic. Where Cliff Walkers stumbles and falls is with its unnecessarily convoluted narrative which neither does justice to its characters nor adds anything meaningful to the story. Yimou is a visual storyteller of the first water, so where he excels best is by keeping the story simple and allowing the exquisitely crafted visuals to speak for themselves.
There is a possibility that Yimou could be metamorphosing from a maverick filmmaker to a political propaganda tool as evidenced by his latest efforts, but when it comes to sheer craftsmanship one cannot help but be genuinely awed by the transcendent beauty the talented auteur creates, and Cliff Walkers is no different.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.