Directed by Zhang Yimou
Written by Quan Yongxian and Zhang Yimou
Zhang Yimou's got a funny career going: first he gets into trouble, having a film pulled from the Berlin Film Festival and buried for a year and a half by Chinese censors, so that despite winning awards in Asia it's not clear when his 2020 film One Second will ever get its American release; and, because when he misbehaves they put him in a box till he promises he'll be nice, his very next movie, 2021's Cliff Walkers, is literally dedicated to ALL THE HEROES OF THE REVOLUTION!, exclamation point in the original, and it's just the most patriotic thing short of outright jingoism, unless you can be jingoistic against collaborators, in which case it merrily crosses that line. Being uncontroversial, Cliff Walkers did get a little release in America in April—the April of 2021, so maybe not a great idea in any respect—though I was only even made aware of it after the fact. (And speaking of Chinese jingoism, apparently this happened again with Battle At Lake Changjin just a few days ago, which is very annoying as I thought I was keeping an eye out for it.)
I cannot, unfortunately, claim that Cliff Walkers* wholly justified the urgency with which I sought it out after missing it in theaters; my presumption is that it'll wind up being thought of as only a relatively minor work in the grander mosaic of Zhang's career. But do I regret importing a Hong Kongese blu-ray, as I regret many of my more compulsive purchases? I don't: it's a hell of a nervy little World War II spy thriller he cooked up. I get the impression that Chinese war movies can surprise an American with their sheer straightforwardness, and Cliff Walkers, while I'd hesitate to call it "straightforward" without heavily qualifying what I meant by that, is absolutely, wonderfully uncomplicated morally: it's not exactly propaganda, but the kind of movie that Americans, locked in our own endless struggle session, practically never make anymore, not even about World War II, and practically since World War II. So it's refreshing just for that; though I suppose it bears mentioning that if geopolitical alignment is something you require out of your movies, hey, in this war we were pals.
So: we begin with four parachutes opening over a wintry Manchurian forest, delivering our heroes, trained in spycraft in the USSR and numbering four: Zhang Xianchen (Zhang Yi), the leader; Wang Yu (Qin Hailu), Xianchen's wife; Xiao Lan (Liu Haocun); and Chu Liang (Zhu Yawen), Lan's boyfriend. Their mission, and they've clearly already chosen to accept it, is to extract a witness to Japanese atrocities in order to score a propaganda coup on the international stage. They separate into pairs to increase the chances that one group will get through—curiously, each one pairs off with the one who's not their romantic partner, though I suppose that makes a kind of sense—and this turns out to have been a good idea, because they were compromised before they even arrived, thanks to a turncoat (Lei Jiayin) who watched his three friends get shot in the back of the head and decided it was preferable to answer a few questions. This presents a certain opportunity to the Japanese puppet authorities—Section Chief Gao (Ni Dahong) and his subordinates Zhou (Yu Hewei), Ji (Ailei Yu), and Xiao (Fan Fei)—and they send their own agents to make contact with the Communist infiltrators, intent on using their arrival to land an even bigger catch in the form of the Communist mole they know they have in their midst. Xianchen and Lan realize they're being set up and make a break for it, but Yu and Chu are successfully gulled, at least at first, into thinking they've linked up with the "resistance," and Xianchen and Lan will have a hard time saving them. Moves and countermoves are made as both groups work their way to the capital in Harbin. Now the mole does reveal himself, but that only makes things even more complicated.
Zhang's taken on the Sino-Japanese conflict twice before: the first time in his debut feature, 1987's Red Sorghum, again in his first and slightly-better-liked attempt to penetrate the American market, 2012's The Flowers of War (which is not to totally forget Zhang's cinematography on Zhang Junzhou's 1983 film One and Eight, either, as Cliff Walkers may be closer to that than either of Zhang Y.'s own films, in terms of genre, and seems to replicate some of its ideas about the use of color.) Anyway, both Red Sorghum and Flowers of War, in their disparate ways, can't help but be severe. As for Cliff Walkers, Zhang's tipped the balance far more towards crowd-pleasing chills and spills: it's a very pure strain of spy thriller. It's never a Bondian cartoon, of course (and not exactly Le Carre either), but very violent, very fast, and very willing to deploy Manchukuo NPCs as target practice to emphasize the prowess of our heroes. Meanwhile, the director's traditional emotionalism and sentimentality, even his usual stateliness, is more-or-less absent. I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism, but it'll be hard for me not to sound like I do: Zhang and co-writer Qong Yongxian's screenplay resorts to some extremely formulaic hooks as a way to pretend this movie might be about the full spectrum of human feeling (besides the notional "romantic" affiliations between members of the principal cast who almost never interact with each other, Xianchen and Yu have a personal side-mission to find their children, hopefully still alive somewhere here in Harbin), and the assumption, I imagine, is that one is supposed to care. But the only reason I'm even referring to this film's main characters with the intimacy of their given names is because there are four Zhangs mentioned in this review, and I'd rather not get confused. So what we have is a pretty strictly mechanical proposition.
It does compensate for that, but not in every respect by being a well-built mechanism, even if it's surely a complicated and baroque one. There are storytelling choices here that can be mystifying—to start with the trivial, it's arranged in "chapters" that are almost entirely useless, and only suggest that maybe Zhang just saw a Quentin Tarantino movie for the first time. Rather more substantively, it's confusing: our four main characters are introduced in heavy furs to withstand the cold, and other than Xianchen we're never really properly introduced to them at all, certainly not with reference to their "personalities." I spent a good part of the film's first act not knowing a lot of names and, for a little while, even still guessing at a lot of the faces other than Liu's, whose huge eyes and small stature make her pretty unmistakable. (And, not to spoil anything, but not all of our heroes will even remain going concerns by the second half, and so we'll be forced to get new ones. If we're using screentime as the metric, I haven't even identified the film's actual protagonist.) Now, it's a splendid-looking movie, and we should circle back to that momentarily, but it's imperfect; I might claim that its editing "works," but don't know if I'd claim it's edited well. There's a jumpiness that makes it slightly exhausting and sometimes actively difficult to follow; there's at least one set of edits that I would call an actual mistake, in that day and night get mixed up in ways that "make sense" afterwards, but are definitely not the ways you'd naturally cross-cut between two scenes. (So, obviously, when Cliff Walkers was nominated in six categories at the Asian Film Awards, the only one it won in was for Li Yongyi's editing. I'll confess I'm also confused how this thing could get acting nominations.)
And yet I wouldn't call any of it accidental, either by virtue of it coming from a filmmaker I trust implicitly, or simply by the evidence of the film he made: everything I just complained about, Zhang uses it to plunge us headlong into an utterly disorienting and disoriented world where anyone could be an enemy, and your allies, if you even have any, have worked hard to make themselves both invisible and mute. It's an astoundingly totalizing work, in a formal sense, and while maybe that's less astounding in a filmography like Zhang's where he does this kind of thing all the time, it's slightly shocking anyway to see it applied to a film set in an urban 1940s, rather than in a fantasia of Chinese antiquity like Hero or The Curse of the Golden Flower. The second-to-last Zhang film, 2018's Shadow, is probably the one it most resembles out of all his works, and, sure, if you've seen Shadow, you know that pretty much nothing in the world really resembles it, but compared to practically any other movie, Cliff Walkers is unusually dedicated to using "black" and "white" as the primary structural components of its visuals; and that includes most actual black-and-white movies.
The "white" comes from the Manchurian setting, constantly covered in snow and almost constantly still snowing, rendered as something approaching abstraction—there's an unreality to Cliff Walkers that is not quite the same as the overt poetics of Hero or the dreamlike haze of House of Flying Daggers, or the color-coded formalism imposed upon an undeniably-physical place like in Raise the Red Lantern. Mu Lin's production design is a pretty spectacular thing in and of itself, and I think what it's trying to look like isn't the 1940s, but a 1940s movie set. It's a very elaborate, solidly-built set (an MGM set, say), and expansive enough to accommodate a stunt-heavy car chase. But it's only just real enough to come off slightly uncanny the whole time you're watching it, so that the very aesthetic denies the legitimacy of the Manchukuo government. Likewise, Zhang's vision manages agoraphobia and claustrophobia all at once, several times taking on a God's-eye-view that transforms Harbin into a literal labyrinth of blind alleys and faceless enemies. The "black," then, comes in the form of every human figure in the film; the sole color is the Manchukuo emblem on some of the uniform caps, and I don't think even one single costume escapes "black" except that sometimes the women, dressed to go out, are allowed "light gray" and, if they're real lucky, "dark brown" (and even that's not really gender-locked—Fan's a Goth Carmen Sandiego in a leather coat). Meanwhile, almost everyone wears the same broad, black hat, so maybe the film it resembles more than anything winds up being Dark City, if only everybody was one of the sinister aliens. It's so fiercely anonymizing. It makes friend, foe, and the occasional neutral alike in their aspect, sometimes impossible to even differentiate—even once we do grasp onto our heroes, they can still become lost in their phony world and its grim army of shadows. It becomes a journey through a pit of genuinely nightmarish paranoia, punctuated by spurts of sudden and splattery violence, topped off by cold-blooded torture, all of it the most gruesome stuff that Zhang's done in his whole career.
So, not to sound too downbeat about it, it's still fun; I appreciate that even with such heavy historical material Zhang is perfectly at ease with allowing you to have fun. (The mission, in fact, is to rescue a survivor of Unit 731. This matters only insofar as the movie would like you to know that Unit 731 was bad.) But it's the bleakest kind of fun, anyway, presented by the ever-resourceful Zhao Xiaoding with stark, sharp cinematography, the blacks and whites of Zhang's vision made eerie by the glowing incandescences of streetlamps and shop windows (going back to the 40s thing, it looks like what Leon Shamroy might've done if he'd had digital photography). It's gritty as all get-out. Maybe it's a mercy that Zhang had no real interest in investing you emotionally in any of the ciphers here; it's emotionally draining anyway, partly because it forces you into constant vigilance (as a psychological state, but also just to keep up with that damn plot, which courts confusion as aggressively as anything in the visuals), but mostly because it never gives you even an inch of slack as it drags you through the frozen hellscape of fear that used to be your home, populated by enemies who used to be your countrymen. Which is a heavy theme after all. I'm going to score this one cautiously; but I wouldn't be surprised if it gets even better the second time around.
*This title was apparently chosen by an international distributor, incidentally—this is a movie singularly devoid of cliffs, and the Chinese title translates as On the Cliff, which isn't amazing either but is at least more self-evidently metaphorical.