Movie Review: “Cliff Walkers”

There are some movie reviews that you finish reading and wonder to yourself whether you’ve learned more about the critic than you have the film. Whether you better understand their politics or likes and dislikes or favorite sports teams or whatever else it is, the approach to the discussion of the film leaves no doubt that the review, either purposefully or not, is a roundabout way of talking about them (and, potentially, their own insecurities).

Having watched Zhang Yimou’s latest film, “Cliff Walkers,” which features a script from Quan Yongxian, I can tell you that it’s one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen in a long time. The outside scenes are regularly snowy and white. They also find themselves spoiled by the brightest red blood on occasion. The inside scenes often feature this fantastic, almost golden, glow. You don’t need to look at the clothes or know that it’s set during Japan’s occupation of China to know that you’re seeing the 1930s, you just have to look at that yellow glow to get your answer. It’s right there. It’s then enhanced by the costumes and the sets and everything else. The images are beautiful, even when they’re horrific.

That said, the movie is indeed set in China during the Japanese occupation. It is the story of Communist-trained Chinese spies on a secret mission, and opens with four operatives parachuting into the country. Frankly, that’s pretty much all we know as much of the film plays out. There are backstabbings and betrayals and lies and deceits and secret codes and even abandoned children along the way. But, if you were to have asked me until the absolute final minutes of the film who is definitively on one side or the other, I’m not sure that I’d have been able to tell you. I would have had some good guesses, but not much in terms of absolutes.

The story of “Cliff Walkers” is perplexing. It is entirely gripping, but also incredibly perplexing. At minimum, some of this feels like the point. Some of it, maybe not. The cast, which includes Zhang Yi, Yu Hewei, Qin Hailu, Zhu Yawen, Ni Dahong, Liu Haocun, and Li Naiwen all deliver intense performances and only help us become entranced with what is taking place even if we can’t always decipher it.

This last is clear from the outset. As the film opens, we have several POV shots as our spy heroes parachute in. These are disorienting moments, with snow obfuscating what we can see and dizzying camera shots as the characters spin around on their way down. We, as an audience, are instantly put in a defensive posture, trying to ascertain who these people are, why they are there, why they immediately split up, what pills they are taking, why not all of them have been fully informed of what’s going to happen once they land, and so much more. Toss in some early betrayals and lies and we are quite quickly at a loss, left to build our understanding of what is taking place piece by piece as the film proceeds.

Happily, that does occur. As we get to know characters and study actions and read faces, we come to understand the story and begin to suss out who appears to be working for whom and with what goal. Not everything makes complete sense, not every detail is clear, but as we watch, we almost function as a codebreaker, seeing what is happening and running it through a mental decryption key to come up with the correct message.

But, if you were to ask me if I got my decoding right, if you were to ask me if I would bet my life on it (because, after all, the characters in the movie bet their lives on such understanding repeatedly), I would decline. I am more than willing to admit that I had several moments of complete confusion and utter despair at ever getting a handle on things along the way. I would state, unequivocally, that I simply do not know whether the movie is to blame (in ways that could be both purposeful and not) or if it is I who am at fault.

What I had no trouble decrypting were the action scenes. There are some very bloody moments and intense chases, both on car and foot, and they are all deftly executed. Although they are brutal at times, they feel considered in their brutality – put on screen to advance the overall nature of the movie not simply out of desire to satisfy our bloodlust.

“Cliff Walkers” is a gorgeous movie, and often a very intriguing one. But am I confused by some of it because it is inherently confusing or because I’m simply not bright enough to understand? I don’t know.

photo credit: CMC Pictures

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