Set in Northern China in 1931, Cliff Walkers follows the story of four Soviet-trained Chinese agents who are tasked to find an informer who has escaped from a location that was occupied by the Japanese, who used it for nefarious purposes like torture. Their mission is to evade capture and make it to Harbin so they can take the informer across the border to safety.
The synopsis sounds simple enough at first glimpse. However, when one considers the film’s espionage genre and the associated tropes, it is certainly not the case with Cliff Walkers. Acclaimed visionary director Zhang Yimou delves into the espionage genre for the first time; and as expected with all of his high-end productions, he has pulled off a wonderful job in making the film both visually evocative and enjoyably nostalgic.
All the tropes in the espionage genre are present – complete with double-crossings, cinema rendezvous, torture sequences, enigmatic conversations, emotionally guarded characters, elongated scenes of suspense, indistinguishable costumes – and Zhang makes it all feel like new again. Frequent collaborator cinematographer Zhao Xiaodong brings a special way of gloss that makes the film beautiful to look at and immersive for the audience to experience. It helps that the distinct settings lend the film a specificity that makes it stand out.
The musical score by Brandon Laureta and Bjorn Shen is appropriately lively and coincides with the storytelling really well. The costumes are – for the lack of better terms – so damn cool and iconic (with the leather trench coats and the plentiful fedoras) and in keeping with the stylistic approach that Zhang goes for.
Speaking of cool, the action scenes – which include numerous brutal melees, loud gunfights, energetic chase sequences, swift car chases – are predictably well-executed and provide evidence that Zhang has not lost a step in showcasing cinematic spectacle. He even throws in some cine-literate [sic] moments that will have cineastes amused i.e. characters have a rendezvous in a cinema that is showing The Gold Rush by Charlie Chaplin.
But for those who are looking for more substance like in Zhang’s other work that go into something more dramatically substantial may find Cliff Walkers a bit lacking. The characterizations are simplistic to the point that the actors are essentially playing ciphers. It is expected and even welcome in the espionage genre as it helps add suspense to the proceedings by blurring the characters’ allegiances; making them hard to discern.
But for those with the expectation of a Zhang Yimou film as opposed to a genre film from him may be irked. It also does not help that since this is a film that is made under the restrictions of Chinese film censorship, the film cannot go into moments that would make the Chinese look bad, hence the allegiances may not be as blurred as expected in a genre piece like this.
The cast perform the best they can given the material they are supplied with. However, only a select few stand out. Liu Haocun, who has worked with Zhang in the comedy/drama One Second stands out as the animated Lan; projecting the perfect balance of naivety, agency and conviction. Yu Hewei shows up midway into the film as Zhou, an agent who is working for the Japanese but is there undercover. There may not be a lot to his character but Yu lends a magnetic aura that speaks a lot for his enigmatic presence.
The rest of the cast are fittingly stoic (although Qin Hailu has an affecting moment in the climax of the film that is both poignant and out-of-place) but they are essentially cogs in the machine rather than parts that stand out from the convoluted narrative. The shift in character perspective also causes problems with the storytelling, making it harder for the audience to sympathise and latch on to a singular protagonist as the character of Lan really should have sufficed.
But one cannot fault the fact that Cliff Walkers is the film that is exactly what it promises; a fun, stylish spy thriller that manages to provide a spit-shine on the espionage genre and make it feel fresh, vibrant and occasionally exhilarating.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Cliff Walkers is showing in cinemas now, courtesy of CMC Pictures.