Telling a lie and being able to sell that lie are two very different things, and for four spies every lie told could mean being captured and tortured, and the death of a valuable witness. Cliff Walkers, famed director Zhang Yimou’s latest film, is an homage to the unsung heroes who risked their lives to inform the world of the atrocities carried out by the Japanese empire during the second sino-Japanese war.
Written by Yimou and based on an unpublished novel by writer Quan Yongxian, Cliff Walkers – also titled Impasse internationally – is the director’s first film in the spy genre, and it’s an effort worth watching. Set in 1930s Manchukuo following the invasion of Japan in 1931 – and the establishment of it as a puppet state in 1934, the film follows Wang Yu (Amanda Qin), Zhang Xianchen (Zhang Yi), Zhou Yi ( Yu Hewei), Xiao Lan (Liu Haocun), and Chu Liang (Zhu Yawen) as secret agents of the Chinese Communist Party, tasked with the dangerous mission of rescuing Wang Ziyang, an escapee from Beiyinhe, a secret killing grounds operated by the Imperial Japanese Army, where biological experiments were carried out on captured Chinese citizens and spies.
After being trained in the essential arts of subterfuge and code-breaking, the team splits up into 2 groups on arrival in the snow-covered wildness outside the city of Harbin. Knowing they’re operating on borrowed time and under the constant threat of being discovered by the enemy, they push forward with their secret operation titled “Utrennya” (Russian for dawn), but before they can make any significant headway they learn they’ve been betrayed by a fellow comrade, and an extremely complex game of spy-vs-spy ensues.
Known for films lush with color, sweeping landscapes, riveting cinematography, and gorgeous costuming, Zhang Yimou is a director who has made his mark in the world of cinema for crafting films that are visually stunning and narratively intricate with plots featuring multi-faceted characters that are never what they appear to be, as can be seen in the Wuxia action films Shadow, Hero and Raise The Red Lantern. Cliff Walkers is said to be his “first foray into the spy genre”, but for anyone familiar with Zhang’s work it’s obvious this definitely isn’t his first film where secrets and lies is the name of the game, and as such he handles all the moving parts with a deft and experienced hand.
While his other films feature long and intricately choreographed action sequences that help to drive the story forward and interject energy, Cliff Walkers is a bit slower paced but this doesn’t affect it negatively, rather the pacing means the audience is inclined to pay more attention. The film does feature some exciting action sequences that take place in trains, forests, and snow-covered streets of Harbin, but to look away and not pay attention to the dialogue and every move made by the characters, means one could miss a moment vital to the plot, as everything is a potential clue about who is to be trusted, and who’s a potential traitor. Which is one of the film’s biggest strengths, and possibly faults depending on how it’s looked at.
The other major plus of the film is the cast’s performances. Everyone does a great job of playing characters who are never quite sure if they can trust the person they’re looking at, following the betrayal, which for any viewer who enjoys a good game of Clue, would be entertaining. It takes a skilled director and cast to pull off a story like this convincingly because there’s no clear indication if certain things that are done, are for the benefit of the plan and the team, or to save their own skin making each performance all the more interesting.
For Zhang, the film has significant meaning, as it shows the heavy sacrifices, and cost those willing to make when they place their lives on the line for the sake of revolution. As one of the characters explained, the use of “Utrennya” for their code word represented the hope that everything would be better when the sun rises. In a nod to the hope of a new day bringing a brighter future, there’s a reference to the 1925 Charlie Chaplin film The Gold Rush made, that makes the title of Cliff Walkers have multiple meanings for the film itself, which just adds to its narrative layers, and Zhang’s ability to create stories that as a spy game, is more than meets the eye.
Cliff Walkers is available in U.S. and international theaters now.
For Zhang, the film has significant meaning, as it shows the heavy sacrifices, and cost those willing to make when they place their lives on the line for the sake of revolution. As one of the characters explained, the use of “Utrennya” for their code word represented the hope that everything would be better when the sun rises. In a nod to the hope of a new day bringing a brighter future, there’s a reference to the 1925 Charlie Chaplin film The God Rush made that makes the title of Cliff Walkers have multiple meanings for the film itself, which just adds to its narrative layers, and Zhang’s ability to create stories that as a spy game, is more than meets the eye.