Chinese author Zhang Yimou (hero, House of Flying Daggers) dives into the espionage genre with an exquisitely shot, snow-covered noir thriller. Cliff Walkers is a story of espionage and treason set in northern China under Japanese rule in the 1930s. The film is tightly drawn with Hitchcock’s character twists. The lavish narrative sometimes becomes cloudy. But hold your attention with great violence, intriguing revelations, and brilliant technical acumen. Cliff Walkers is sophisticated cinema from an experienced filmmaker.
In the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, four communist spies parachute into a wintry forest on a top secret mission. Zhang (Zhang Yi), Yu (Qin Hailu), Lan (Liu Haocun) and Chuliang (Zhu Yawen) trained in Soviet Russia for months. They are extremely skilled, but their arrival is not unexpected. The murderous department head Gao (Ni Dahong) and his methodical henchman Chou (Yu Hewei) were made aware of their presence by a traitor.
The activists decide to split into two teams to reach Harbin City. Zhang and Lan soon discover that they have been betrayed. You have to warn the others, but Gao’s thugs are hot on their trail. While Chou chases them down and tries to find out their ultimate destination, every spy hides a dear secret. But the mission is of the utmost importance and must be fulfilled at all costs.
Cliff Walkers has a complex plot that is told in seven chapters. I rarely take notes while watching a movie, but decided to do so within minutes of the first act. This is by no means a criticism, just a confirmation of the exact details of the plot. During the tense, two-hour runtime, countless characters intersect. Not to mention the film is Chinese with English subtitles and lots of dialogue. Cliff Walkers requires a higher level of focus for western audiences but is well worth the effort. A surprising turn of events took me by surprise.
Zhang Yimou’s art as a director continues to be great. Cliff Walkers is beautiful to see. The camera work, production design and editing are excellent. The entire film is bathed in white snow, but muted with dark colors for an atmospheric effect. This is particularly well possible in several highly stylized car chases. The film recalls the crime noir sensitivity of the forties and fifties. Cliff Walkers has a sense of fear that pervades everywhere. Zhang never lets you forget what’s at stake for the characters. They fight for their country and their lives are ruined by ruthless oppression.
Cliff Walkers is a nationalist story that encompasses the communist revolution in China. It also realistically depicts the atrocities committed by the de facto Japanese government at the time. Regardless of your political or historical points of view, this film works as a spy thriller and as such can be artistically appreciated. Zhang Yimou returns to form with a capable cast. Cliff Walkers was previously titled dead end. It is a production by Emperor Motion Pictures, China Film Co. Ltd., Shanghai Film Group and Hua Xia Film. Cliff Walkers will be released in cinemas on April 30th by CMC Pictures in the US and China.
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