You never really know what you’re going to get with a Zhang Yimou movie these days. Then again, perhaps that was always the case to a certain degree. Once a leading light of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese Filmmakers, Zhang graduated from the Beijing Film Academy with the vision and confidence of a well-established auteur; his debut feature “Red Sorghum” won the Golden Bear at the 1987 Berlinale, paving the way for an unimpeachable string of contemporary social dramas (“The Story of Qiu Ju”) and florid historical epics (“Ju Do,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” and the sweeping 1994 masterpiece “To Live”) that examined the plight of the working people and raised the international profile of Chinese cinema even when they were banned from screening in the country’s theaters.
Frequently overlooked, however, is Zhang’s little-seen second film, a frivolous action thriller called “Codename Cougar” about an airliner that’s hijacked by terrorists from Taiwan. So it was hard to predict Zhang’s next move even before he went mainstream with “Hero” at the turn of the millennium, or seemed to develop a nationalist streak by directing the Beijing Olympics ceremonies and some tacky Chinese-American co-productions like “The Great Wall.” The only predictable thing about Zhang’s recent career path is that it veered in a new direction once the filmmaker started to feel like a glossy propagandist for the Communist Party; 2018’s “Shadow” was a high-contrast wuxia spectacle that bore the hallmarks of a return to form, while 2019’s “One Second” was pulled from the Berlinale mere days before its premiere because it ran afoul of the Chinese censors. It has yet to see the light of day.
Now, Zhang returns with a lavish yet ultra-convoluted spy thriller that loses the plot almost as soon as it starts. But if keeping track of the callous betrayals, secret codes, and tricksy double agents proves to be more trouble than it’s worth, there’s something hypnotic about the way that “Cliff Walkers” constantly forces its characters to ask the same question that cinephiles have been waiting for Zhang to answer since the turn of the century: Whose side are you on?
Don’t hold your breath for a clear takeaway on either side of the camera. For one thing, “Cliff Walkers” is the kind of movie where the plot thickens until you can hardly sink your teeth into it anymore. For another, the film’s nationalist bent is so pronounced — from the basic details of its premise down to a closing title card that dedicates it “to all the heroes of the Revolution” — that it almost feels like a forced confession for whatever Xi Jinping’s censors found so criminal about “One Second.”
It’s only through the raw spectacle that Zhang captures on screen that a different explanation gradually crystallizes into view: Zhang dreamed of framing a twisty espionage thriller against the snowy backdrop of Japanese-controlled Manchukuo, and knew appeasing the government was the only way he could rebuild half of downtown Harbin to match its 1930s imperialist veneer. That isn’t necessarily the “right” explanation in any sense of the word, but “Cliff Walkers” is on such a sugar high over cinema’s transportive power, it feels like it was directed by a kid in a candy store.
Considering the movie’s pro-Communist proclivities, it helps that the heroes of “Cliff Walkers” are nobly trying to expose a genuine war crime to the rest of the world. The action begins with four Chinese operatives — two couples — parachuting into the frozen tundra of Manchukuo on a mission to rescue the only survivor of a death camp massacre perpetrated by collaborators of Japan’s puppet government. The couples split up as soon as they touch down on the snow, mismatching partners so that their love for each other can’t be exploited in the event of getting captured. Zhang (Zhang Yi) and the deceptively fresh-faced Lan (rising star Liu Haocun) go one way, while Zhang’s wife Yu (Qin Hailu) and Chuliang (Zhu Yawen) go another. When one team falls into the clutches of some double agents before they even make it to Harbin, the other team has to somehow relay that message without setting off any alarms.
This seems ripe for the stuff of easy suspense — it’s the kind of premise that Quentin Tarantino would happily stretch until it snapped — but the script that Zhang and co-writer Quan Yongxian adapt from the latter’s short story is less interested in straining tension than tying knots. With the notable exception of an early set piece aboard a crowded passenger train (in which the teams are close to each other, but forced to communicate in coded messages written with the condensation of a bathroom mirror) and a chase through the streets of Harbin shot with dazzling aplomb, “Cliff Walkers” spends most of its time on cryptic loyalty tests in shadowy backrooms.
The danger involved in deciding who to trust is palpable, as are the headaches that come with it. Both are magnified by a script that spares little time to flesh out its characters. Zhang is a former journalist whose reporting skills serve him well as a spy. Lan is adorably childlike, but she trained for this in the USSR along with the rest of her team, and she’ll mess anyone up who’s foolish enough to lower their guard. That’s about it. The film is shadowed by a tearjerking subplot about the two children whom Zhang and Yu were forced to abandon when the Japanese invaded, but sentiment makes for an awkward fit in a movie so focused on spycraft that it seems to forget why these characters are playing cat-and-mouse in the first place.
If Zhang makes it clear that puppet governments are no picnic, he’s also totally punch-drunk when it comes to the romance of beating them at their own game. Shot on location in subzero Harbin temperatures so cold that “Cliff Walkers” seems to offer A/C by osmosis, the film heats up whenever the action spills onto the immaculately dressed streets. Even for those of us who don’t have an indexical memory of what the city looked like during its Manchukuo days, buildings like the Asia Cinema and the fittingly named Martyr Hotel have been rebuilt with such obvious care — and at such great expense — that “Cliff Walkers” plays like a time machine.
Likewise, the ubiquitous snow isn’t just an elegant backdrop, it’s also an active landscape as shifty and volatile as any of the characters, and lends the movie a gauzy feel that complements the unstable dream logic of its plotting. Even those baffled by the “what” of it all might be so entranced by the “when” and “where” they don’t even notice the complete lack of cliffs, or people walking them (the original title, “Impasse,” must not have been sexy enough for international markets). While there are some riches to be found under the surface for anyone who feels like watching this with a flow chart, Zhang is so clearly seduced by the spell of his own movie magic that everything else feels like an inadvertent side effect. He’s on his side, and he’ll forge whatever strategic alliances he needs to in order to stay there.
“Cliff Walkers” is now playing in select theaters.
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