'Cliff Walkers' Review: Zhang Yimou's Handsome Spy Thriller Leaves A Cold Impression

Zhang Yimou's name instantly calls to mind the bright, opulent colors of the renowned Chinese filmmaker's wuxia films and historical epics — Hero and House of Flying Daggers are two of the most sumptuous films to grace our screens. So it's no wonder that Cliff Walkers (formerly titled Impasse), Zhang's first foray into the spy thriller, is a handsome and stylish thriller whose wintry setting establishes a chilly mood befitting the genre.

But it's with a cold hand that Zhang approaches Cliff Walkers. It's more of a chance for the visual master to flex his muscles in staging taut suspense sequences that flirt with the balletic action he's known for (this time with more Bourne-style shaky cam!) and less of anything else. But it's hard to complain too much about the stilted, somewhat confusing, story when Cliff Walkers looks this good.

Set in 1930s Manchukuo, the northeastern puppet state formed by Japan in 1932, Cliff Walkers follows a team of four Communist special agents trained in the Soviet Union who return to China on a secret rescue mission. In a striking opening sequence that feels both elegant and unusually raw for Zhang — the director employing far more handheld cam than he has in his previous historical epics — the four of them parachute down into a wintry forest on the outskirts of town.

So heavily bundled in furs so that you can barely see their faces, let alone distinguish the characters, it takes a while to get a handle on who our protagonists are before they split up in two separate teams in order to carry out their mission, which is to smuggle the sole survivor of a Manchurian death camp out of China to give witness to Japanese war crimes. But the four of them, which we learn are made of two couples — an older married couple Zhang (Zhang Yi from Operation Red Sea) and Yu (a standout Qin Hailu), and the younger upstart agent Chuliang (Zhu Yawen) and his waifish girlfriend Lan (Liu Haocun, doe eyed and almost irritatingly naive) — share a brief tender moment before they part. Team leader Zhang orders them to mix up before the two teams take off in different directions to rendezvous in the northern capital of Harbin.

But the odds are stacked against them from the beginning. In a bleak sequence running parallel with the agents' arrival, the Manchukuo agents torture information about the secret mission, code name "Utrenna," out of the Communist agents' intended handler. Armed with that knowledge, the Manchukuo sector chief send a group of his own secret agents to pose as handlers for one of the teams, and the rest of the film descends into a tense cat-and-mouse game, the Manchukuo agents nipping at the heels of the Communist protagonists as it slowly dawns on them that they're surrounded by traitors.

The film moves briskly, even if you're not sure in which direction it's moving. The script by Quan Yongxian is a little too opaque to follow, so full of twists and turns and late-stage reveals. It's what makes the arrival of Yu Hewei's (I Am Not Madame Bovary) double agent Zhou so confusing, appearing to take over the operation after Zhang gets captured. But Zhou is a welcome addition whose presence instantly invigorates the dwindling narrative — Yu is easily the most charismatic of the cast, and gives a strong performance as the agent embedded in the Manchukuo government who walks on a tightrope as he attempts to carry out the mission while hiding his identity as a mole. The turmoiled double agent is the stuff of spy thriller dreams, and Yu performs the hell out of it, his roiling emotions hidden just beneath the surface of his stoic face, shielded by a wide-brim hat that's frequently covered in snow.

It's the look of Cliff Walkers that sets it apart from many a shadowy spy thriller. The dark suits and darker hats are a common identifier of the genre, but cover them in freshly fallen snow and set it in a pristine 1930s post-colonialist Chinese town that is resides under a permanent icy white blanket, and Zhang once again proves his title as the visual master. Muted as the palette is — all greys and whites, with the occasional splash of the reddest blood — Cliff Walkers feels like a continuation of Zhang's visual confidence that he showed in 2018's Shadow, a monochromatic wuxia film that was hailed as his return to form. Zhang no longer needs bright colors to dazzle his audience, nor the visual loudness of digitally-driven epics like The Great Wall. He's only got to show shadowy figures in the snow, puffing out the cloud of smoke or frozen air, to enrapture you. That confidence extends to Zhang's action sequences — grimy spy movie brawls punctuated by the occasional wuxia-style pirouette or flip that show the filmmaker's singular flair in this genre.

It's a sturdy spy thriller from Zhang, a competent first outing in the genre for the filmmaker. But most of all, Cliff Walkers is safe. It makes one wonder about his intended next film One Second, a personal project that was abruptly withdrawn from the 2019 Berlin Film Festival for its depiction of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang, who has occasionally received grief from the Chinese government — and whose films were even briefly banned from the country for a critical portrayal of the Community government — has stayed on the country's good side by supplementing these more critical films with swooning nationalist epics bordering on propaganda. Cliff Walkers is firmly in the latter, dedicated to "the heroes of the Revolution," and portraying the atrocities of Japanese officials with such brutality that it becomes hard to watch. In the end, the film may walk on the cliff, and even teeter off it, but it doesn't leave you on edge.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10