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Cliff Walkers Review: Zhang Yimou Serves Up Confusing But Gripping Snow-Covered Spy Thriller 

Good luck keeping track of who’s friend and foe in the espionage thriller set in 1930s Manchuria.


Cliff Walkers (NC16)

Starring Liu Hacun, Qin Hailu, Yu Hewei

Directed by Zhang Yimou

​​​​​​​Four Soviet-trained Chinese communist agents parachute into the puppet state of Northeast China in 1931 — before it was named Manchukuo by Japan — on a top-secret, highly dangerous mission in Zhang Yimou’s gripping, twisty and tension-filled old-school espionage thriller.

Basically, you probably have to see this labyrinthine Gestapo-style action-drama twice, maybe thrice, to grasp it more fully. There are double crosses and triple plays. You’ll need a guidebook — a novel from a bookstore is used here as a codebook — to help you make out who’s who and what's what.

Because, initially, you’re likely to be confused by the indistinguishable faces darting clandestine dagger glances at each other. A predicament that’s made worse by everyone wearing similarly drab heavy clothes in snow country with no easy differentiation.

Here’s the cryptic burning question in Cliff Walkers — how far would a spy inserted deep undercover into the enemy camp go to carry out his mission? Would he willingly sacrifice his comrades’ lives?

This is the tip you’ll need to navigate through this complex, ambiguous plot — “Got to make it real, it comes with the territory,” says one player here about going to the extreme.

The four agents, comprising two couples, are split into two stealthy teams that break up the pairing of loved ones. Meaning: husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend have no way of knowing what has happened to each other. Thus, adding very cleverly and effectively, as a plot point, to the emotional toll of the danger here.

They separate to avoid detection and increase the chances of Operation Utrennya — the Russian word for “dawn” — which gets even harder to accomplish due to a traitor in their operation.

Both teams aim to rendezvous in the main city, Harbin, to extract a very highly valued target — the sole survivor of a secretive Japanese army death camp — to deliver him to safety so that he’ll expose Imperial Japan's atrocities to the outside world.

Each member carries a lethal cyanide pill in case of capture. “Say a quick goodbye,” they’re told as they head off to different fates in risky enemy territory.

One team — young man Chu Liang (Zhu Yawen) and stoic woman Wang Yu (Qin Hailu) — are able to get to the safe house with the help of local contacts. “Safe”, though, is an utterly wrong word. The friendly folks harbouring them are the very same devious people out to nail them like foxes in the hen house.

The other pair — tough group leader Zhang Xianchen (Zhang Yi) and newbie girl Xiao Lan (Liu Haocun) — aren’t as lucky when their suspicious contacts try to seize them in the snowy mountain where they first landed. The duo escape to make their individually perilous journey to the meeting point using their skills and ingenuity to kill and survive.

Zhang Yi (The Eight Hundred) is resolute as the brains of the group while Liu is tentative as its inexperienced heart. Before the film switches focus deftly onto a different key character who becomes its unexpected, most intriguing and absolutely compelling enigmatic soul.

Man, I tell you, an early train-to-Harbin sequence here is so suspenseful, treacherous and full of furtive is-he-one-of-us looks among the passengers that it makes the train scene in From Russia with Love look like a kid’s school trip.

For there are Chinese spies and traitors everywhere who are loyal to the totally unseen Japanese occupiers. Ruthless official Gao (Ni Dahong) is aided by his No. 2 Zhou Yi (the truly arresting, no pun intended, Yu Hewei from A Writer's Odyssey) and Jin Zhide (Yu Ailei), a not-too-bright henchman who will become a what-not-to-do retributive lesson for anybody aiming to be a smirking mean bastard towards his braver, more loyal countrymen.

I know it’s a lot of unwieldy names and faces. But these are terrific actors who instill fear and trepidation just by standing there looking calm and unruffled while possessing the life-or-death omnipotence of wicked gods.

They’re hunters who are mercilessly casual in executing their prey and are most adept at inflicting torture in a dark dungeon over the point of no useful return. Their unfortunate victims become such mangled inhuman remnants that they are better off dead. “I'm worthless trash now,” one captive says as he accepts his impending doom.

If you’re squeamish about grisly torture chamber scenes, stay clear of this flick. Electric shocks and psychedelic drugs injected to force out information are favoured methods.

If you’re also expecting a movie filled with bright colours since Zhang Yimou is famous for previous vividly painted pics like 2004’s House Of Flying Daggers and 2016’s The Great Wallas cinema's premier colourist, well, you’re not going to get your brilliant visual feast either.

Don’t get me wrong. This is still a great-looking, gorgeously shot, dread-lit film by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding which fills up the big screen. But there are only two pre-dominant, near-monochromatic hues here — numbing white and grim grey.

The white is the snow which keeps pelting down on everybody and blanketing everything in this snow-covered, far-flung outpost of China. This relentless precipitation is actually an extra character that allows Zhang to rev up his action scenes (shootouts in alleys, vintage car chase)  with a contrasting intensity and lace his slower scenes (the interplay between good agents and nefarious spies) with weightier, more poignant drama.

Although you do wonder why the streets are always so conveniently stage-set empty for this diabolical game of gunplay and car crashes to take place. Is it too freezing cold for any bystander to even chill outside here?

The grey, meanwhile, is the ubiquitous hats, long coats, black-heart uniforms and, by extension, the general murkiness of mindboggling deceit, duplicity and betrayals which pervade throughout the show.

Double agents and counter spies lurk in the shadows and also blatantly out in the open even at the dinner table so much so that both the characters and the audience do not know who allies or enemies are. No one, not even a friend, can be trusted because friend and foe could even be the same person switching quite incredulously first as a trusty comrade cooking food and next as a uniformed informer reporting to her commander.

I wondered, at such moments, whether the screenwriter, Quan Yongxian, who wrote this tale as a prequel to his 2012 TV espionage series, Cliff, streamlined things a bit too much.

Nevertheless, this is still a spy flick like no other.

The main point of the movie isn’t whether the agents complete their mission successfully. It's about what they do to counter their enemies to ensure that it is carried out, and how much they give up as well as who they sacrifice along the way.

For Zhang Yimou is a filmmaker often more interested in the strengths and vulnerabilities of men and women placed in quite inescapable circumstances. Their actions and fates being a consequence of their instincts to survive and exist one more personally insular yet outwardly dutiful day.

In this riveting exploration of the shining allegiance of brave patriots and the sinister motivation of their cruel pursuers, Zhang has assembled a superb cast to pull it off. You can’t take your eyes off the four agents and, ultimately the excellent Yu Hewei when he takes over the picture as Zhou Yi, who appears to be an enemy executioner with an apparently callous heart.

Cliff Walkers may confuse you with its twisting, intricate plot.

But you know, clearer than a snow-free day, that you're watching a great group of actors here. (4/5 stars)

Photo: Clover Films

 

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