Based on the script by Quan Yongxian (“Cliff”), Cliff Walkers (2021) is director Yimou Zhang’s (Shadow, Hero, House of Flying Daggers) first foray into the spy genre. Set the puppet state of Manchukuo in the 1930s, the film follows four Communist party special agents who return to China after receiving training in the Soviet Union. Together, they embark on a secret mission code-named “Utrennya”. After being sold out by a traitor, the team find themselves surrounded by threats on all sides from the moment they parachute into the mission. Will the agents break the impasse and complete their mission? On the snowy grounds of Manchukuo, the team will be tested to their limit.
One of the best parts of this film was it’s script. Quan Yongxian more than makes his mark on the spy genre with this high stakes, non-stop action and tension, nail biting and gut wrenching film that is incredibly captivating and exciting from start to finish. Something that I think really works about the film is that after it gives you some basic information about the time, place, and setting, the film just drops you right into the action. You’re as uncertain as to what may happen as the four main characters/agents are. There’s no long exposition scene where it’s explained to the audience who these characters are and what their mission is. It’s something that is often rare in modern action films where the mission is often explained to us beforehand, but it’s a screenwriting technique that I think is extremely important in building suspense. That is something else that Quan Yongxian’s script excels at. From the very first scene, two of the agents meet up with two contacts who they discover are actually spies working against them. Now it’s up to them to try to outwit the spies in order to continue their mission. Right away you become aware of not just the stakes, that our four main agents may be captured or killed at any moment, but also where the suspense and tension comes from, as anyone the agents think is on their side could be working against them. It’s a fantastic opening that perfectly sets all of this up. The antagonist’s introduction I also think was excellent and clearly shows how ruthless and cruel the people the agents are fighting against are.
Two other elements of the film that I think are truly stellar were the costume design and the production design. The set and production design completely immerse you in 1930s China with all the impeccable details in the different sets like the train, movie theatre, and remote regions of the country. This film also takes place in the dead of winter, so that adds another element of atmosphere with the characters almost always being covered in snow, and the cold and mountains of snow being another hindrance to their mission. The consistent harsh weather (which I should emphasize that the characters quite literally feel and react like they are in this cold harsh winter and it’s not just there for set decoration) with the incredible production design make for an extremely immersive film. That’s also to say nothing of the costume design which is extremely stylish and complements the spy tone this film is going for. It also feels like a bit of a homage to spy films from the time period with the long dark trench coats and fedoras.
Director Yimou Zhang has nearly four decades of filmmaking experience, and I think that experience for the most part really shines here. I think he did a great job of capturing the tone and energy of a spy thriller. Again this is also partially attributed to the script, but I thought the film had some really unique set pieces that lended itself to some cool fight sequences, such as one that takes place on a moving train, and another outside of a train station. Yimou Zhang I think really excelled with constantly keeping the tension and stakes high as well as building suspense. Even in scenes where people are just talking, you are constantly on the edge of your seat terrified that one character will be found out or caught. However, Zhang knew when to keep the suspense and danger high, but also when to slow down and leave some room for some more emotional moments.
I think one of my biggest issues with the film was the editing, particularly in some of the fight scenes. Especially in the scenes where there is a lot of snow falling on the characters, it could already be difficult to see what is going on. However, that combined with the use of shaky camera and really quick editing cuts in some scenes made it really hard to tell what was going on. I think as the film went along it got a little bit better, but even in some scenes where people were just talking there were a lot of cuts. It was the most frustrating with the fight scenes as I wouldn’t be able to tell right away who got hit and who escaped.
One of my other issues with the film was that the characters could have been a bit stronger, particularly in their motivation for going on such a deadly mission. I feel like Wang Yu (played by Hailu Qin) and Zhang Xianchen (Yi Zhang) specifically had some pretty strong and empathetic motivations for going on this mission, I just wish that the other two agents, Chu Liang (Yawen Zhu) and Xiao Lan (Haocun Liu) had strong motivations as well. I just think in that regard the characters were a little weak. Which is a bit of a shame because I thought the four main actors were all phenomenal. Two of the standouts for me were Hailu Qin (“White Deer Plain,” The Piano in a Factory) and Haocun Liu (One Second, A Little Red Flower) who I felt really stood out with some really emotional scenes. Another standout performance for me was Hewei Yu (“Three Kingdoms,” “The Advisors Alliance”) as Zhou Yi who displayed a lot of emotional range as well, especially considering how his character was in a lot of complex situations.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars
The editing was a bit distracting and the characters could’ve been a bit stronger. Besides that however, Cliff Walkers (2021) is an extremely thrilling, suspense fueled experience from beginning to end. An immersive setting, impressive performances, and a constant sense of tension, impressive action set pieces, and slick dialogue makes this film one worth experiencing.