There are few Mainland Chinese directors with as much clout as Zhang Yimou. Famous for not only launching the iconic career of actress Gong Li with his stunning 1990s work but also for delivering jaw-dropping Wuxia spectacles with the likes of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and 2018’s Shadow (my third best film of that year), Zhang is the sort of director for whom any release is a must for serious fans of Asian cinema. As one of China’s biggest directors, combined with his critical and arthouse bonafides, Zhang’s films are also released in the west with a better chance of success than other mainland films, which also offers audiences a chance to recognize and observe a Mainland director’s ongoing and increasing oeuvre. All of this to say, Zhang has a new film out called Cliff Walkers, and it’s pretty interesting.
So, what is exactly Cliff Walkers? Well, first off, it is a weird translation for the title. The Chinese title literally means “Above the Cliff,” a title with plenty of connotations concerning impending historical events but also the dangers faced by the main characters. Impasse was the original English title, and I much prefer it to Cliff Walkers, which feels a little clumsy and doesn’t convey the same sense of dread and danger as Above the Cliff or Impasse. But I digress.
Cliff Walkers drops us, and the protagonists literally via parachute, into Manchukuo in the early 1930s. It’s not unexpected for a film aimed primarily at a Chinese domestic audience to dispense with context those viewers understand. For western viewers, a short explanation is in order. Manchukuo was a puppet state controlled by the Japanese empire from 1932 to 1945, situated in what is now northeast China. The film finds four spies infiltrating this hostile puppet state with one objective: Find an escapee of a Japanese concentration camp and get him out so he can tell the rest of the world about Japanese atrocities there in the hopes of influencing international aid to China. Unbeknownst to the newly landed spies, their mission is already in dire peril. Intense crackdowns on local resistance efforts have produced a traitor who not only knows their plan but is handing every detail over to Japanese-controlled puppet forces. Thus begins a deadly game of spy vs. spy in which we are always trying to guess who knows what about whom and what they are going to do about it. The twists and turns can be hard to keep track of, and though a few convenient narrative leaps are made, Cliff Walkers largely makes for engaging viewing.
Zhang has a recognizable and sumptuous style that is on full display here. Harbin, the city in which the film takes place, is known for its icy weather, and Zhang uses this to full effect — shooting gorgeous snowscapes upon which the shadowy figures play their spy games for the fates of themselves and those they represent, all while passers-by are unaware. All of our players don long black coats and fedoras, both watched and being watched in the whirling snow. The film delivers a curious mix of noir and war story, and the excellent production design helps this period piece shine with a professional sheen not out of place in a Hollywood recreation of the same story. The soundtrack has an almost Morricone-esque vibe in some parts but is appropriately somber and dramatic when appropriate. There also appears to be a bit of Kurosawa-via-Ikuru homage going on with the visuals too; this is not the first time that Zhang has paid his respects to the Japanese master (Hero to Rashomon and Shadow to Kagemusha, respectively). Zhang has not yet made a film that isn’t a gorgeous thing to behold, and though this is his first time trying his hand at the spy genre, he takes to it well and never leaves one’s eyes bored. I would be happy if he returned in the future to the genre and the time period.
There’s an irksome tendency in the west to dismiss as propaganda any films out of Mainland China that don’t feel a certain way or that pertain to Chinese nation-building and victories. This is incredibly reductive because it throws out the window both any decent film criticism and the idea of trying to understand films from another country and the storytelling language that those films speak. Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain is another film that falls into this category that depicts Revolutionary victories with a personal and emotional touch. With the end credits of Cliff Walkers, Zhang dedicates the film to to the “Heroes of the Revolution.” That doesn’t mean the film is a work of blind nationalism that depicts glorious victory. Zhang’s characters are risking themselves to bring victory to their side but the film, importantly, does not shy away from the costs of these actions on the characters who face both torture and death should they fail. As beautiful as his visuals are, Zhang unflinchingly portrays the pain of torture and does not shy away from the emotional toll inflicted by sacrifice and death.
Leaping to assumptions, you might assume that these themes all suggest the mission to be worth it. An interesting coda for the film is that despite all the actions taken in the narrative, they would be rendered moot shortly after as the Japanese would fully invade and commit their atrocities out in the open. Sometimes people fight the good fight for nothing. Sometimes time is the only real way to win. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try in the service of a larger good. Astute viewers will notice similar themes with Zhang’s opus, Hero. It’s easy for lazy minds to make assumptions about the content of a film from other countries, but I would recommend a little more reflection on the films of one’s own country and digging a little deeper into those from foreign cinema to really parse what other directors might be saying (instead of nation-state geopolitics), as well as your own biases.
The Cliff Walkers cast performs admirably, with Yu Hewei a standout as Zhou Yi, whose role in the film shifts from bit player to lead, in turn flipping the film on its head. Zhang Yi and Qin Hailu do well as the more experienced married spies, and you get a great feel that they really know what’s on the line here and what it might really cost. More idealistic are the younger spies, played by Zhu Yawen and Liu Haocun (giving off major Zhang Ziyi vibes here), who find themselves confronted with the realities of where they find themselves and who are forced to mature over the course of the film. The players here deliver convincing performances as characters who are, to some extent, also delivering a performance themselves; personal feelings are allowed a moment and pushed under the rug in the service of the mission.
Throw all these ingredients together and what does Cliff Walkers deliver? It doesn’t quite have the lavish Chinese period visuals that have defined Zhang’s work so far, but it still feels recognizably him. The twists and turns keep the movie fresh, and there’s a very real sense of danger that’s pervasive throughout much of the film that really allows us to empathize with the characters. The plotting can get a little too labyrinthine at times, but Zhang’s masterful command of his visuals ensures that we are never lost in the action nor who is doing what to whom (even if we are a little unsure as to why). All in all, it makes for a pretty good spy flick with some extra food for thought on the side, even if the film simultaneously evades a definitive statement on its themes or feels a little too obtuse about them. Cliff Walkers will likely end up nothing more than an interesting footnote in a career full of some of the greatest films of all time. And that’s fine. Even the best directors have footnotes. But Cliff Walkers is still worth your time and attention if you’re a fan of Asian cinema or any of the other elements involved here. After all, even a lesser Zhang Yimou film is still a Zhang Yimou film.