Zhang Yimou’s latest film “Cliff Walkers” is a taut and melancholic period drama thriller which is a bit better than I expected. Although it is familiar to the core in terms of story and characters, the movie is still a solid genre piece to be enjoyed and admired for a substantial amount of mood and tension on the screen, and you may come to overlook a few redundant things around the end of the story.
At the beginning, the movie gives a succinct explanation of its historical background. In the early 1930s, the Manchuria region of China was turned into the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo right after the invasion of the Japanese Army, and that naturally drove many Chinese patriots into the underground resistance against the Japanese Army and its collaborating local authorities, who were pretty harsh and ruthless in their pursuit of those Chinese resistance members as shown from the opening part of the film.
We are introduced to four Chinese Communist Party agents who have just parachuted on a remote spot somewhere in Manchuria on one cold winter day. It gradually turns out that they are risking their life for some very important mission to be accomplished in Harbin, and now they must arrive in Harbin as soon as possible without getting noticed by their opponents.
For avoiding any possible suspicion, these four agents get on a train to Harbin in two separate groups as planned in advance, but there is one big problem which they fortunately detected right from the beginning. As already shown to us during the opening part, a key member of their organization came to betray the organization after being arrested and tortured by the local police led by a guy named Gao Bin (Ni Dahong), and their worst fear turns out to be true during a tense sequence unfolded inside the train.
Although he and his men succeed in identifying one of the two groups, Gao bin decides to monitor this group for a while because he is going to catch all of the four agents. Disguised as several members of the organization, several officers under his command have this group stay in their ‘safe house’, and they carefully try to extract any possible clue to where the other group is at present – and what is exactly the four agents planning to do in Harbin.
It goes without saying that their mission is more or less than a MacGuffin to hold our interest, and the movie comes to focus more on the constantly precarious situation of its four agent characters. While it seems on the surface that they are safe for now, Chu Liang (Zhu Yawen) and Wang Yu (Qin Hailu) are still watchful and careful as before, and we get several moments of subtle suspense as they and their disguised opponents indirectly pull and push each other with uttermost discretion. In case of Zhang Xianchen (Zhang Yi), who is incidentally Wang’s husband, and Xiao Lan (Liu Haocun), who happens to be Chu’s lover, they must be more careful as evading their opponent second by second, and they become more desperate as Gao and his men seem to be getting closer and closer to catching them all.
As the cat-and-mouse game between the four agents and their opponent is continued, the movie steadily accumulates more tension and mood on the screen in addition to doling out several plot turns I will not reveal here. The screen is frequently packed with nice period details to be appreciated (I was particularly amused by some cosmopolitan elements of Harbin during the 1930s, for example), and Zhang and his cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, who previous collaborated with Zhang in “Coming Home” (2014) and “Shadow” (2018), did a commendable job of establishing a moody sense of melancholy and desperation in the snowy winter background of the film. Not so surprisingly, the overall result often takes us back to that indelible grey ambiance of Jean-Pierre Melville’s great film “Army of Shadows” (1969), and we get more emotionally absorbed in the despairingly uncertain circumstance surrounding the main characters of the film, though we also naturally observe their story from the distance due to knowing too well what would eventually happen in 1945.
Although it comes to focus more on action than suspense during its last act, the movie still holds our attention as before. Several action scenes in the film are well-executed on the whole with enough gritty qualities, and we are more aware of what is being at stake for everyone in the story. The movie becomes a bit too sentimental around the end of the story in my humble opinion, but it does earn this rather unnecessary moment at least, and then it slaps us hard via the following moment of hard-boiled violence.
The main cast members of the movie are believable in their respective archetype roles. As Zhang Yi, Qin Hailu, Zhu Yawen, and Liu Haocun dutifully hold the center together as required, Ni Dahong and several other substantial performers surrounding him are also effective on the opposing side, and Ni is particularly good when his character comes to suspect a certain figure under his command later in the story.
In conclusion, “Cliff Walkers”, which was incidentally the Chinese submission to Best International Film Oscar in last year, is not exactly on par with Zhang’s better works such as “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991), but it is entertaining enough for recommendation at least. Although he may have passed his prime period, the movie demonstrates that Zhang is still a skillful filmmaking master despite some recent disappointments (Remember “The Great Wall” (2016)?), and that is enough for me for now.