Mere months after the long-delayed, China-only debut of his drama One Second and with another title, Under the Light, already in the can, Zhang Yimou’s espionage thriller Cliff Walkers finally enjoys its international release. Delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this stylish spy melodrama nevertheless remains most viewers’ first new Zhang title since 2018’s Shadow, his well-received return to the wuxia genre. Long a director most comfortable sifting through China’s extensively recorded history to best showcase his sumptuous aesthetic sensibility, Cliff Walkers falls somewhere between his action-packed wuxia projects and his more calmly paced, emotionally driven dramas, taking place in snowy, Japanese-occupied north-eastern China in the 1930s.

It all sounds like prime territory for Zhang to make the most of his prodigious cinematographic talents, yet this is the master filmmaker operating at a lower level artistically than usual. Cliff Walkers is static, repetitive and distinctly uninspired. If, as the reductive propaganda piece it so clearly is, it was handed to Zhang to recompense for whatever political controversy One Second reportedly caused with the CCP, it certainly shows. He’s never been unwilling to toe the party line but here he finds little to cover for its narrative contrivances, instead faithfully pursuing their every predictable twist and turn through a plot that only ever insists upon the height of its own stakes, never actually convincing the audience of that height.

What most scuppers Cliff Walkers, however, isn’t the banality of its plot but the sheer incomprehensibility of it. There’s such a vast array of characters, all shady and duplicitous and under threat in some regard or another, convalescing around the same few familiar locations – seemingly populated by hardly anyone else – until, finally, they start thinning the crowd and offing one another. It’s needlessly difficult to keep track of who’s doing what and why – the complexities of Quan Yongxian’s narrative design highlight Zhang’s typical fuzziness with plot detail, yet Quan too seems to omit essential information at far too many junctures. The movie is reduced, at times, to a series of scenes in which the viewer is required to discern vaguely what circumstances are currently transpiring in order to glean where one ought to invest their sympathies; you may be so preoccupied with keeping stock of it all as to drain yourself of sympathy altogether.

If caring about the characters is thus not an especially promising option, Cliff Walkers at least ought to offer some of Zhang’s signature rich visuals to keep one’s eyes on the screen. Yet here too it falters, albeit not nearly so injuriously. This is certainly a handsome picture with high production values and a clear, consistent aesthetic. But even that lacks for inspiration – Zhang’s desolate inner-cityscapes of snow-covered wood and stone are captured in chilly greys and warm golds by regular DP Zhao Xiaoding, but their compositions express little more than just the basic technical beauty of their construction. Stylistically, it’s an oddly perfunctory movie for a filmmaker who’s rarely afraid to indulge in liberal flourishes of extravagance; if Cliff Walkers undoubtedly demanded a colder, grimmer sensibility than Zhang’s customary lushness, he never fully yields to that demand. The movie hovers in an underwhelming, unremarkable middle ground between outright ugliness and supreme beauty, giving neither grit nor glamour.

That underwhelming sense pervades Cliff Walkers; the movie as a whole occupies a similarly middle-ground position, neither terrific nor terrible. It has fabulous period trappings, arresting action sequences and the intrinsic attraction of the spy movie subgenre to hold the viewer’s attention, yet no sign of the spark of inspiration that has brought so many of Zhang’s best movies to glorious life. Like the vulnerable, dislocated spies within it, the movie feels trapped in a kind of limbo, doing smart, noble work in service of dull, deflating ends.

Imbued with neither the passion of his classic period dramas nor the vitality of his famous action films, this is a subpar, strangely pedestrian effort from Zhang Yimou.
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