With its spies, secrets and super secret code names Zhang Yimou’s “Cliff Walkers” is apparently the Chinese director’s version of James Bond. But that’s where the comparisons end. While the Bond films are sexy, polite, and heart-focused, Yimou’s film is cold, aloof and soul-focused, trading thrills for a mystifying whimsy.
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The film is based on a script by Quan Yongxianwho researched Spycraft for three years. In the story of Cliff Walkers, two couples parachuted to Manchukuo state in the 1930s and landed in a forest outside of Habrin. The four communist agents led by Zhang (Zhang Yi, of “Mountains can leave”) are on a top secret mission to bring a refugee from a Japanese prison camp to safety. When a gunfight goes south in the forest, Zhang mates with the youthful Lan (Liu Haocun) while Yu (Qin Hailu) and Chuliang (Zhu Yawen) Meet another group of agents – spies who might as well have badges that say “bad guys” on them.
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Zhang quickly turns them into informants – she looks right under their fur coats and brim hats. And she proves her skills with a pistol and skillfully and brutally destroys it. It turns out that there are other informants, so she jumps from one snow-covered set piece to the next, deciphering codes and exposing traitors, turncoats and horribly camouflaged moles. Meanwhile, Yu hides in side streets. Chuliang crouches through shadows. An agent named Zhou (Yu Hewei) infiltrates the prison under the guise of an officer. Cleverly, all of these characters move like pawns on a chessboard, each playing a crucial role in their master’s endgame and the director’s middlegame, while Yimou keeps us guessing who is double-crossing whom, who has the upper hand, and why the action is so cautious?
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Of all of the director’s historical epics (“Hero”, “Red Sorghum”), “Cliff Walkers” are perhaps the most sparse and realistic – without bashing windows and poking out eyeballs. It’s tight and overplayed. There is very little flash in the form of combat, gadgets, or car chases. There are no martial arts. It’s pure espionage, centered around a story of covert operations, double crosses, and the spies who risk their lives on both sides.
The film is less about action and spectacle than about victims and the cold fate of being a spy. That is why Yimou surrounds his characters with a ghostly atmosphere. He turns Habrin into a snow globe and there is no shot without snow falling. No weather man is required here: every day is snowy, cloudy, below zero, with the chance of Snapchat-worthy sunsets.
Quickly transports us to this winter wonderland, all shades of white, gray and black, “Cliff Walkers” and offers some of the most fascinating landscapes you will see all year round. But for a movie about undercover agents there is a lack of thrills and no characters to hold onto. Even so, Yimou goes out in style. He may not make a Bond movie, but he definitely deserves his license to kill. [B-]
“Cliff Walkers” is available now.