Out here in the West, Zhang Yimou has an established reputation as an auteur of wuxia martial arts films. Pieces of lavish design and spectacle such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers and even the execrable The Great Wall. However, to assume this all he’s capable of is a bit like assuming that Jack Daniels is the only whiskey made in Tennessee. The martial arts stuff is just what makes it over to us and is broad enough to penetrate the Western consciousness. In truth Yimou is a highly versatile workhorse of a director, dabbling in everything from personal drama to crime to espionage.
It is this territory in which Cliff Walkers is set. On the snow swept hills of North East China in the 1930s when the nation was under Japanese occupation. Here four Chinese agents of the Soviet Union are parachuted outside the city of Harbin to extract an informant. Amongst this global intrigue though two of the operatives, Zhang (Zhang Yi) and wife Wang (Qin Hailu), are hoping to also rescue their young children, who have been living on the streets of Harbin for five years. As is the case with these things, nothing is what it seems; operative betray each other, contacts turn out to be double agents and nobody, it seems, can be trusted.
The script by Yongxian Quan is excellent at building an atmosphere of tension and intrigue. Danger feels present round every corner and it’s easy to distrust everyone at certain stages. However, it is all so layered in deceit and obfuscation that it becomes difficult to follow any of the events beyond the broad strokes of the plot. Characters become indistinguishable from each other and it’s easy to lose track of who is really allied with what faction. Not least of all during the first act when everyone’s hiking across the snow in identical furs. Yimou’s direction ensures that the emotional core of each scene is powerfully communicated but it is hard not to feel like something is being lost in translation.
That direction is what elevates the story beyond the level of a typical soviet thriller. Despite working with a dramatically reduced scope Yimou still provides this intimate story of lies and betrayal with a sense of the epic. The violence is bloody and brutal and the drama deeply personal, yet it all gives the feel that these minor actions will have far-reaching consequences. All of which comes at a swift enough pace to keep you immersed.
None of Yimou’s aesthetic style is absent either; the film is set largely across two acts, taking place in winter mountains and then the streets of Harbin. The former possessing a monochrome whiteness with the thick, heavy snows that make up the treacherous terrain are characters are sinking into. While Harbin is a decidedly noirish cityscape, all dark streets and labyrinthine alleys. While lacking the elaborate flair of the director’s more ostentatious works, the costuming is as detailed and beautiful as ever. Forming a pristine and distinctive coat over characters whose morality ranges from grey to black.
Cliff Walkers is a film as both beautiful and inscrutable as its setting. With such a densely layered plot it is easy for the film to feel remote however between Yimou’s power and the character’s personal struggles, the emotion breaks through. It is by no means the director’s best work but a worthy addition to an already acclaimed filmography.