Zhang’s latest, an espionage thriller set in 1930s Manchuria, mostly works as a violent, intricately-plotted genre exercise about spies and traitors.
Dir. Zhang Yimou
2021 | China | Drama/Thriller | 120 mins | 2.35:1 | Mandarin
NC16 (passed clean) for violence
Cast: Zhang Yi, Liu Haocun, Yu Hewei, Zhu Yawen, Qin Hailu
Plot: In the puppet state of Manchukuo in the 1930s, four Communist party special agents, after returning to China, embark on a secret mission. Sold out by a traitor, the team find themselves surrounded by threats on all sides.
Distributor: CMC Pictures
Subject Matter: Moderate – Spies & Traitors
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: In Theatres
Already in his seventies but more prolific than ever, Zhang Yimou follows up from last year’s One Second (2020), still yet to be widely distributed, with Cliff Walkers (formerly known as Impasse), an espionage thriller set in 1930s Manchuria as Japanese forces begin to invade the territory.
But this is not a story about the Chinese against the Japs; instead, it’s about communists and anti-communists as the Chinese play an ideological game of cat-and-mouse.
Four spies parachute into the desolate snowy landscape as they try to regroup in Harbin to plan for the next steps in their secret mission. But after a traitor forces them to rethink their strategy, these spies must try to evade capture—and the excruciating torture that follows.
Cliff Walkers mostly works as an intricately-plotted genre exercise, with numerous sequences designed for suspense. It is also unexpectedly violent and bloody, at least for a Zhang Yimou blockbuster.
However, Zhang’s grasp of emotions and catharsis isn’t that strong here. While a few of the main characters are moderately well-developed, their relational dynamics aren’t; so what keeps Cliff Walkers ticking is its plotting and suspense, rather than characterisations and emotional implications.
While most of the cast don’t leave any meaningful impression, the most striking performance has got to be Liu Haocun’s. I was already very impressed by her, who played opposite Zhang Yi (also in Cliff Walkers) in One Second.
And here, she continues to showcase her abilities as the next ‘Mou Girl’. Despite her young age, her screen presence is undeniable, a cross between Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi.
Cliff Walkers should find some success at the box-office despite the pandemic, though it may come across as unnecessarily convoluted for general audiences.