EDITOR’S NOTE: At press time, the following film is playing exclusively in theaters. Before attending a movie screening (or any indoor public event), please weigh all potential risk factors, including vaccination status, the safety of those around you, and your own personal comfort level. Be safe out there, kids.
In the opening scene of Zhang Yimou’s Cliff Walkers, four spies trespass enemy territory — 1930s Manchukuo, the Japanese-occupied area in northern China. They enter via parachute, with first-person handcam witnessing each person’s tumble, through tree branches or into a hardened layer of iced snow, into the tumultuous path that lies ahead. Also known as Impasse, this film is Zhang’s first foray into the spy genre over the course of his forty-year career. Its tonal coldness starkly contrasts with the bright cultures expressed in House of Flying Daggers or Shanghai Triad. It’s even distant from the spacious playground (and maybe budget) that was The Great Wall, though the attempt to broaden public interest seem more present in his latest works. Similarly to the rest of his filmography, Cliff Walkers runs on a complex set of gears that directly propels the story from one scene into the next with a renewed sense of danger.
Under Operation Utrennya, the Soviet-trained spies are ordered to rescue a surviving Chinese prisoner so that he can share his experience of torture conducted by the Japanese. But as they find themselves continuously thwarted in their efforts, it becomes clear that there’s treachery afoot. The pace of the film leaves little time for individual motives and is more focused on these scene-end twists, leaving questions to clutch onto each other with little rope for surmising. It’s befuddling to mention that our spy team is comprised of two couples, but because their relationships don’t heavily play into any sort of rationale, it’s a small notch in the plot. With the exception of one couple agreeing to return to their children should they survive, and the fact that that doe-eyed Lan (Liu Haocun) is not so doe-like in combat, we’re as in the dark about their personalities as their enemies are.
Espionage is a difficult balancing act between tricks that can believably dupe a CIA veteran and a robust amount of straightforward action. Sure enough, Zhang has his characters stabbing an enemy’s eye with a twig in one scene, and delieering a strangulation/face-punching combo maneuver in the next. In addition, the director relies on the element of snow as its own character. It represents an opponent in the terrains and in town, but also seems be the sole consistency in an otherwise shifting plan. Not that the weather pops up as a topic of conversation, but the omnipresence of snow metaphorically closes the distance between the spies and the Japanese when the film drifts off into its own trickery.
We can agree that snow usually doesn’t hurt a cinematographer, and in the right frames, the movie does look like it’s supposed to be good. The clean lines in suits and the spareness of the set design comes together in a historical sleekness that succeeds in complimenting a spy story. Even when they traverse in their warm fur outerwear, it seems like it’d be both accurate and practical. There may be enough action to sustain attention for moments at a time, but when the snow starts to melt, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the script finds itself staring down the barrel of a gun.
dir. Zhang Yimou
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