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Cliff Walkers
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by Jay Seaver

"Tough to tell whether this is a disappointing or extra-clever spy movie."
4 stars

"Cliff Walkers" at times feels less like a movie and more like a TV series that has gone on a year too long, to the point where it has needed to switch in new cast members for departing stars, given audience favorites in small roles more to do, and kind of lost the main plot, all in just over two hours. That it's not actually stretched over two years keeps it from truly being a drag, at least, especially since filmmaker Zhang Yimou seldom puts in less than a full effort, even when you suspect he's doing a movie to get back in the good graces of the powers that be after doing something a little too controversial, to the point where it's easy to second-guess any disappointment.

Here, he parachutes the audience and his characters into 1930s Manchukuo, a puppet state in Northeastern China controlled by Japan. Their goal: To reach Harbin and extract Wang Ziyang, the only survivor of a prison-camp purge. The team: Zhang Xianchen (Zhang Yi), a former reporter and their leader; Yu Wang (Qin Hailu), his wife, like him as concerned with the children they left behind when they fled Harbin years ago as the mission; Chuliang (Zhu Yawen), a loyal soldier; and Xioalan (Liu Haocun), young and inexperienced but with a gift for cryptology. Zhang wisely splits them into teams of two - him and XIaolan on one with Yu and Chuliang on the other - only for both to wander into traps that Section Chief Gao Bin (Ni Dahong) has set after getting wind of their arrival from a traitor. Even if the team sees that their supposed allies (Yu Hewei, Yu Ailei, Zhou Xiaofan) are fakes, can they extricate themselves before Gao decides there's no point in keeping them alive?

Gao Bin is far enough ahead of Zhang at the start that the stated mission that it would be easy to forget what Zhang's team is there for if someone didn't occasionally mention it in conversation, and it's occasionally frustrating, especially if one bought a ticket looking for a straightforward bit of action. Co-writer-/director Zhang Yimou seems to get caught up in details and side tracks, although a clear alternate purpose eventually resolves: The film is an exploration of just how stressful and potentially deadly the paranoid head game that being a spy entails. There's a fair stretch of the film where one expects some sort of mini-resolution so that everyone can move on to Step 2 or Plan B, but instead things keep getting even messier and more hurry-up-and-wait, but there's at least enough intrigue to keep it going.

It becomes a bit unbalanced; the apparent core four are so out of their depth and closely-watched that there aren't a lot of chances to really impress - Qin Hailu and Zhu Yawen, in particular, have to be so stone-faced that they don't even get much chance to do fun things at the corners, and the split of the teams keeps the two halves of the film's couples apart. There's more interest to be found in the pairing of Zhang Yi and Liu Haocun as the most and least experienced in the group, Zhang's uncertainty that Xiaolan is up for what needs to be done isn't quite upended by how sharp the sweet girl can be, but I suspect many would like to see a version of the film that centers Xiaolan more, and not just because Liu looks to be the latest in a series of Zhang Yimou muses that includes Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, already filming her third collaboration with the director. On the other side, Ni Dahong gives the sort of performance as the villain that makes one wonder how easily a smart, capable person can fall into that role, and has a nice group around him, though I wouldn't dare spoil which of Yu Hewei, Zhou Xiaofan, and Yu Ailei are playing competent, hapless, and treacherous.

And, as per usual with Zhang Yimou, the film is gorgeous, not quite so stylized as Shadow but still having a lot of fun putting dark clothes on snowy landscapes, giving people cool hats to cut a sharper silhouette, and throwing 1930s neon in for some variety. The action is staged right as well, messy and with no middle ground between quick and lingering ugliness, even when everything hits a climax and the set-pieces get bigger. Gunshots are deafening and headlights blindingly bright, accentuating both danger and what revolutionaries must become to face it.

It doesn't quite peter out, but it's eventually swallowed up by its machinations, not quite the twisty thriller it's sold as or truly exciting when one realizes it's something else. Still, it's hard not to give a filmmaker as accomplished as Zhang Yimou the benefit of the doubt; he spends enough moments pointedly noting poison pills that one wonders if that's what he's figuratively giving people here: <I>Cliff Walkers</I> looks like a story of heroic Communist agents on a mission, but becomes a story of the stress and self-destruction of living in even a gilded surveillance state - and the fact that it's hard to know how willing the director is to bite the hand that feeds him at this stage of his career doesn't exactly work against that reading.

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originally posted: 05/08/21 08:51:23
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  30-Apr-2021 (MA)

Directed by
  Yimou Zhang

Written by
  Yimou Zhang
  Yongxian Quan

  Yi Zhang
  Hewei Yu
  Hailu Qin
  Yawen Zhu
  Haocun Liu

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