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Climbers, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Not exactly the apex of mountaineering movies."
2 stars

As much as I watch movies about mountain-climbing adventure because I love seeing amazing landscapes and terrifying chasms on the big screen, buy this point I must admit that some part of me must also enjoy the urge to yell "you arrogant idiot!" at the people involved. "The Climbers" offers a lot of chances to do that, probably more than it offers eye-popping visuals or even shoehorned-in attempts to play to action-movie star Wu Jing's strengths. It is far too sincere and patriotic to be much fun.

It opens in 1960, when at the height of the Great Chinese Famine, the National Mountaineering Team set out to be the first to climb Everest - "Mt. Qomolangma", to use the Chinese/Tibetan name - from the north side. Though the team captain perished, Fang Wuzhou (Wu Jing), Qu Songlin (Zhang Yi), and Jiebu (Lavant Rob) make it to the summit - but without evidence caught on film, many in the international climbing community are skeptical. The team disbands and goes their separate ways, with Fang occasionally giving lectures on between shifts in a boiler room and meeting meteorology student Xu Ying (Zhang Ziyi), though she soon goes to study in Moscow. In 1973, the country reforms the team, with the veterans joined by newcomer Yang Guang (Hu Ge), photojournalist Li Guoliang (Jing Boran), and Tibetan native Hei Mudan (Quniciren) with the goal of accurately measuring Qomolangma's height and putting Chinese feet on the top of their own mountain.

You are not going to find any payback against the idea that Tibet and Everest are and should be part of China in this movie; its release is tied to National Day and the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, and it plays very much like a film that had to be approved by the country's propaganda department. It's far less aggressively about trying to build China up by pushing other cultures down than many such films - that mostly appears in how Wuzhou comes to question himself after students cite foreign doubts about his 1960 expedition - but the screenplay often has a very hard time untangling the national from the personal where pride and motivation is concerned, especially when trying to stay within the rough bounds of a true story. It's a movie about people who must have a powerful ego that pushes them to achieve the near-impossible, made by a culture that officially has a low opinion of such things, and as such never seems to have a strong point of view on why these people make any decision or to examine their thinking that much.

Which, in a way, makes the film a good match for its star. Wu Jing became a superstar in China when he started making films that let him be an uncomplicated hero rather than have to wrestle with the melodrama that even martial-arts films often included in Hong Kong, and that's Wuzhou. He's suitably weathered and possessed of a crooked grin that he can break out as necessary, but his most memorable and emotional scenes are the ones where he does something physical. There's probably no part of the movie that disputes the audience to like Wuzhou more than him easily climbing an abandoned factory parkour-style to impress a girl, even if it feels like that scene was probably just put in to let Wu do something like the action audiences expect of him. The film mostlye emphasizes what the start is good at, and that works for both.

He's surrounded by a decent cast that plays off each other well enough - Zhang Yi is full-on gruff as the embittered teammate who last half his foot to frostbite in the first expedition ("you should have saved the camera instead of me!"), while Jing Boran and Quniciren are amiable as the eager photographer and local girl who are infatuated with each other, enough so that it's kind of a shame that they are among the characters constantly pushed back in favor of Wuzhou. There certainly seems to be more to their love story than that of Wuzhou and Xu Ying, which doesn't give Zhang Ziyi much to do other than be unwavering loyal, even though the ten-year time jump implies Ying must have had a life of her own (also: giving her pigtails does not make her a believable college student).

The film is receiving a brief Imax release in North America while likely dominating those screens back in China (the end credits include every type of giant-screen, 3D, and immersive-experience brand), and this is where it s should become a big deal, but it never write manages that. Director Daniel Lee and his crews put together fine, fun-to-follow action even when it might not be great idea - Wuzhou probably should not get a heroic action sequence as a direct result of ignoring Ying's weather forecast - and dramatic moments are executed well even when they are kind of rote. Mostly, though, it's a case of Everest almost being too familiar right now - there have been several big-screen features set there in recent years, and The Climbers doesn't do much visually to stand out from the crowd. It looks good - maybe not quite Hollywood-quality, but not far off - but even there, it's built in such a way as to let the audience become too familiar with the setting. We travel the same terrain three or four times in this movie alone, and it never makes the peak feel tantalizingly out of reach.

Ironically, there have been recent stories of people dying on Everest because it has become too accessible to modern-day climbers, who get stuck in a tragic jam. That's a bit how this film feels by the end - impressive as a chronicle of people doing something immensely difficult, but eventually well-enough traveled to not be nearly as thrilling as it should be.

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originally posted: 10/03/19 08:53:47
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Directed by
  Daniel Lee

Written by
  Daniel Lee
  Shang Ying

  Jing Wu
  Ziyi Zhang
  Yi Zhang
  Boran Jing

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