Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) delves into the spy genre with an exquisitely shot, snowy noir thriller. Cliff Walkers is a period tale of espionage and betrayal set in 1930s Northern China under Japanese rule. The film is densely plotted with Hitchcockian character twists. The elaborate narrative gets muddied at times. But keeps your attention with stark violence, intriguing reveals, and brilliant technical acumen. Cliff Walkers is sophisticated cinema from a skilled 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) have trained for months in Soviet Russia. They are extremely skilled, but their arrival is not unexpected. The murderous Section Chief Gao (Ni Dahong), and his methodical henchman Chou (Yu Hewei), have been alerted to their presence by a traitor.
The operatives decide to split up into two teams to reach the city of Harbin. Zhang and Lan soon realize that they have been betrayed. They must warn the others, but Gao's goons are hot on their trail. As Chou hunts them and tries to figure out their eventual goal, each spy holds a dear secret. But the mission is paramount and must be accomplished at all costs.
Cliff Walkers has a complex storyline that is told in seven chapters. I rarely take notes while watching a film, but decided to within minutes of the first act. This is by no means a critique, just an acknowledgment of the plot's precise details. A myriad of characters double-cross each other during the tense, two-hour runtime. Not to mention the film is Chinese with English subtitles and a lot of dialogue. Cliff Walkers will require a higher degree of focus for western audiences, but is totally worth the effort. A surprising turn of events caught me completely off guard.
Zhang Yimou's artistry as a director continues to be sublime. Cliff Walkers is gorgeous to see. The cinematography, production design, and editing is superb. The entire film is bathed in white snow, but muted with dark colors for atmospheric effect. This is particularly well done in several highly stylized chase scenes. The film hearkens back to a forties and fifties crime noir sensibility. Cliff Walkers has a sense of dread that pervades throughout. Zhang never lets you forget what's at stake for the characters. They are fighting for their country and lives destroyed by ruthless oppression.
Cliff Walkers is a nationalistic story that embraces the Chinese Communist Revolution. It also realistically depicts the atrocities committed by the de facto Japanese government at the time. Regardless of your political or historical viewpoints, this film works as a spy thriller and can be appreciated artistically as such. Zhang Yimou returns to form with an able cast. Cliff Walkers was previously titled Impasse. It is a production of Emperor Motion Pictures, China Film Co. Ltd., Shanghai Film Group, and Hua Xia Film. Cliff Walkers will be released theatrically in the United States and China on April 30th by CMC Pictures.