Directed by Zhang Yimou and Zhang Mo
Written by Chen Yu
Zhang Yimou has a non-standard number of children for a 71 year old from China. During his prime reproductive years, some version of the One Child Policy was in place; Zhang has had seven. Well, he paid his fines and I'm not the Chinese baby police. I don't know what kind of father he is to his other six—I expect "middling to poor" though one reckons they're taken care of financially—but the one he might have treated the very worst was his first, Mo, a daughter born to his first wife Xiao Hua in 1983, so about three years before his long-term affair with Gong Li began and several more before Xiao finally granted him a divorce, whereupon he cut ties with his hated ex-spouse and, by extension, their kid. Eventually, he felt bad about this, and has attempted to compensate by, if not designating Zhang M. his successor, at least giving her every opportunity possible to follow in his footsteps and be a film director, too. Thus she's been given work on a number of Zhang Y.'s films over the last decade—as an editor, as an assistant director—and she has directed at least one film to date all on her own, 2015's Suddenly Seventeen (which her dad produced). In 2022, Zhang Y. brought her on to co-direct his film, Snipers.
I'm sure there's some assumptions you could make about Zhang M.—"nepo babies" this, "nepo babies" that—and it's true, no Zhang Y., no Zhang M.'s career, probably. But to be fair, the daughter brings her own independent skillset, and I have in fact already made an assumption here, that it was Zhang Y. who brought Zhang M. onto Snipers, rather than the other way around. I don't even know if I feel good about that assumption: it was written by Chen Yu, who co-wrote Zhang Y.'s next film with him, but for all I know that just means Zhang Y. liked the cut of Chen's jib (they'd never worked together previously), and while Snipers isn't categorically "not a Zhang Yimou movie"—there are significant stylistic and thematic links to the World War II spy film he made immediately beforehand, 2021's Cliff Walkers—Snipers is a combat film set during the Korean War, and Zhang Y. has never previously touched on either of those subjects. (He's shown an interest in violence, obviously; but I would hope we can readily distinguish a "combat film" like Black Hawk Down, or, more appropriately, Operation Red Sea or The Battle of Lake Changjin, from the wuxia action of a Hero or House of Flying Daggers.) The closest he'd gotten to this kind of movie besides Cliff Walkers is his 2011 WWII film The Flowers of War, and, wouldn't you know, his assistant director on Flowers of War was his daughter.
What I can say for sure is that Korean War movies are very big in China right now for reasons that I'd not like to infer too much about here except to say, "I'd rather you didn't, but if you did, we'd send the PLAN to the bottom of the ocean." I can also say for sure that Zhang M. speaks English and Zhang Y. does not, and that Zhang M. was raised partially in America by her mom and Zhang Y. was not. Hence her importance on Flowers of War (starring Christian Bale), and hence her importance here in a cast that's about one-third American. It's why I would not bet my life on the assumption that Snipers wasn't her project, and she didn't simply ask her dad for help with the technical aspects, possibly even doing him the favor, since his film right before Cliff Walkers, the still-unavailable One Second, reportedly got the party a little miffed at him (again) and patriotic war movies are a good way to earn forgiveness. (His latest film, the one he co-wrote with Chen, Full River Red, indicates that Zhang Y.'s political penance still wasn't complete, or else he actually has gone warhawk.) As long as I'm speculating, I could speculate that, as Suddenly Seventeen sounds about as stereotypically "girly" as a movie could be (it's a little too complicated to get into, but it's a magic teenager movie), Zhang M. could've easily been as eager to not be pigeonholed as a frilly fantasy director, when the money in China is in masculine jingoism, as her father was to suddenly do a movie largely distinct from everything else in his forty year career.
And so we have the film itself, which is, as you may have guessed, about snipers. It's about a lot of snipers, and I can almost guarantee that if I read a random review, it would describe it as "collectivist," which I always look at with deep suspicion especially as regards combat films which are almost definitionally about collectives, but in this case maybe it would be correct: it's about one team of People's Volunteer Army snipers, the 5th Squad (of some larger unit, presumably), led by Capt. Liu Wenwu (Zhang Yu), who blunder into a trap set by a team of U.S. Army snipers, led by a man named John (Jonathan "Cao Cao" Cos-Read), whose surname we never learn, which turns out to be the last thing about this adversary that ever seems lazy or unspecific, but we'll get back to that. The set-up is actually very simple: John has gotten orders (or, it's implied, actively sought orders) to capture the "Chinese Grim Reaper"—that's Liu—alive, as a propaganda triumph, and to do so he's dragged the unconscious and seemingly-dead body of Liu's pal Liang (Yitie Lu) out to a stretch of no man's land, believing this will flush the sniper out. He bases his insight on a newspaper photograph of the two men smiling and being amiable, which doesn't seem too sound to me—it doesn't seem that sound to other American characters in this movie—but as the movie does need its plot, John's right about their relationship, but wrong about why it prompts the Chinese to attempt to recover the man. Liang is in fact an intelligence officer in possession of secret American (cough) "invasion" plans, so it's very important to get him back, important enough that a lot of 5th Squad is going to die trying—but then, so will a lot of John's men.
This is extravagantly contrived, but, however roughly, it does what it needs to, reducing the Sino-American conflict to a manageable cast of roughly fourteen and trapping them in what amounts to a single-location narrative—practically a chamber piece, with the conversation being undertaken by way of bullets—so that despite the vast armies behind each small unit, and even the way the landscape visibly extends forever in every direction, our principals, expert marksmen all, are stuck mostly in a couple of abandoned trench lines and sometimes behind boulders, though the ones who wind up stuck behind boulders at the beginning don't last that long.
The Zhang Yimou of it is easy to see: beyond "reducing a socio-historical conflict down to representative individuals," which in fairness is most movies if you stretch it far enough (though Zhang Y. often does it more openly, and not-infrequently within single locations), we have the sheer starkness of Zhang Y.'s customary collaborator Zhao Xiaodong's photography, like Cliff Walkers before it meditating upon visuals dominated by white sheets of snow (Korea has other seasons, but Korean War movies don't) and broken mostly by the jutting black interruptions of field fortifications and earth kicked up by gunfire and explosions, or the movement of the white-clad snipers themselves against white ground. It's not as poetic as Cliff Walkers (it's not a blizzard all the time), nor as bizarre and totalizing as Shadow (Zhang Y.'s first "black-and-white" film), but for what announces itself as a fast and dirty thriller, and at 86 minutes it's one of Zhang Y.'s shortest features, it's a well made one, concerned with the geometric interactions between men who explicitly cite geometry as the hallmark of their craft.
And the thrills on offer are very real, the scenario permitting the two units to hatch strategems and ruses when their initial plans don't survive contact with the enemy, and contemplate their failures while hatching new strategems and ruses, all in something akin to real-time, the only marker of time at all being a glamor shot of the wintry sun over the crest of the American lines, which is probably meant to be more poetic than literal, as it's not like the film really wants you to concern yourself with whether it's setting or rising or if it's just orbiting in that low wintry way, a dim sun at the end of the planet disapproving of the necessity of the sacrifices made beneath it. (The action does open up somewhat for the finale, which involves a tank, and it's useful variety even if I'm not sure I prefer its bombast.)
So if it does resemble Cliff Walkers more deeply than its color palette, anyway, it's that both very much feel like the American war movies of the 1940s and 1950s that China never got to make for itself—Cliff Walkers being the lush MGM epic, Snipers the Warner Bros. programmer—and while we can endlessly discuss the worrisome antagonism inherent to making such things now, or even just the utter gauchness of a movie that enthusiastically tallies the Americans killed in the Korean War (and gets the number wrong), I can appreciate that Zhang Y. and Zhang M. are doing their part to redress the absence of rah-rah war movies or at least slick, polished rah-rah war movies in China's film history. More than that, I can appreciate that in Chinese war movies the soldiers (including the Americans!) appear to have, like, an actual interest in the war they're fighting. (This goes way, way back to the post-Vietnam era, and probably has its roots even deeper, but contrast this with the recent American Korean War movie, Devotion, where nobody seems to have an opinion about it.) But Snipers, anyway, is so mid-century that its chubby sniper is actually named "Chubby." The only time it doesn't feel like it could've been made in 1953, anyway, leaving aside the digitalness of the photography (it could, in 1953, have been shot in 'Scope ratio and in "color"—I say it's "black-and-white" but this is all production design, whereas the actual photography is graded pretty much for naturalism) is when the Zhangs pull a Dante Lam trick out of their pocket and do CGI-assisted tracking shots of slow motion bullets. I don't despise this in Lam's cartoonish and overtly-fake war movies (though I'm not sure I like it, and it's weird to me that Chinese cinema is so indebted to the garish excesses of mid-aughts American cinema), this a Zhang production, and so it's much statelier, and not built at all to support this kind of imposition. It'll have to support it, though, because the Zhangs use it like five times, starting in the first three minutes of the film, even if in every instance "just do editing" would be better.
If it sounds like a bunch of dudes shooting at each other, it is (but thoughtfully!), and yet it does enough with its characters to make them compelling. Not solely out of generosity, we can attend the Chinese side first: Liu is the seasoned captain, though our focus is Zhang Dayong (Chen Yongsheng), named in honor of famed sniper Zhang Taofang who might not have appreciated the homage, since while it does mark Dayong out as our hero amongst heroes, Dayong's principal character trait is crying, that is, the modal image of Chen Yongsheng might really be him with tears streaming down his face. But I like this: it's a melodramatic, emotional film, and while Liu is constantly getting on Dayong's case for being a crybaby, he's not even especially cruel about it, and Dayong is hardly the only one who's overcome. (Even Liu winds up shedding big, silent, masculine tears.) It's not sharply-crafted character drama—it relies to a significant extent on "people dying is inherently sad and carrying on is inherently noble"—but it Goddamn works, and it's not without texture, either. I found the existence of Liu's binoculars to be especially (and surprisingly) moving, going from a way to define character hierarchies and relationships to a launching point for a chest-beating monologue about how ridiculous and unfair it even is to be jealous of their captain's binoculars, given that an American would scarcely comprehend the scarceness of such a basic piece of kit, and, as noted, the main American they're fighting seems to have his own personal access to a fucking tank. And there are production details that underline the physicality, like Liu sweating even though it's freezing and we can see how pink his hands are. (Which is sterling attention to make-up detail, a strong aspect of Snipers throughout, since I'm relatively sure nobody is freezing, and I believe the frost-breath is as CG as the bullets.)
So it paints the PVA as underdogs against us capitalist running ones, and this is where I think Zhang Mo matters, because while the Chinese characters are more sympathetic and more rousingly declamatory, the American side of the movie is simply much more interesting. It is, for starters, respectful in its treatment, threading a pretty graceful line: the Americans are evil enough to bait traps with dying spies in the first place, and to deliver the coup de grace to a sniper they've already blown both hands off of, but not so evil as to murder a child who bumbles into the battlefield; likewise, they're fearsome enough to be worthy enemies, but human enough that they also get sad and mad about their friends dying around them. The Americans also quarrel, which I realize makes us "worse," but we still only consider fragging each other. In any case, the cultural competency is spot-on: Zhang M., whom I believe it's safe to assume did the "American" half of this film, gets Americans well enough to do her set of one-note side characters justice, and I'm rather taken with the dialect work that's this curious accent to the left of "Southern," whereas at no point did the dialogue not sound like things Americans might actually say. (Or, if that doesn't quite apply when it comes to the repository of all stereotypes in this film, John's shrieking superior officer who interposes himself later, then his dialogue still sounds like what his character type would say in an American movie.)
If that were it, it wouldn't be too noteworthy—then again, a lot of American movies don't quite accomplish "having dialogue that sounds plausibly like a human Anglophone wrote it"—but Zhang M. takes her half of this rather paint-by-numbers film and turns it into damn near something like a character study, with John by some substantial margin emerging as the most fascinating figure in the film. Jumping on the chance to take down Liu out of a whole complex of motivations, particularly fortune and glory, but also patriotism and even a professional's pride, he reels with defeat and loss before doubling right down on a mission that's become his obsession, and he's a terribly good villain—for war movie antagonists, maybe even a great one—benefiting immensely from American-Chinese actor Kos-Read, whom we know little of because his whole acting career's been in his adoptive country, and while my first instinct was to call him "budget Jake Gyllenhaal" I don't think that's completely fair (though it starts with a striking physical resemblance), because on the basis of this film, he's just American-Chinese Jake Gyllenhaal, no discount applied, giving a ragged performance that balances mastery, single-minded irrational pursuit, admirable bravado, and in extremis a certain bug-eyed craziness without ever crossing over into demented caricature.
And so it's fair to say I liked it: of Zhang the Elder's B-sides, it's a success, and while I really can't overstate how much I dislike the faddish recourse to bullet time, it delivers that Chinese combat action in a patriotic package; for Zhang the Younger, however, it's a genuinely remarkable piece of directing, and it's very possible I've got two Zhangs to follow now.