Cliff Walkers

You won't find more visually beautiful films than those made by Zhang Yimou. Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower – all are sumptuous to look at. Even a straightforward action picture like The Great Wall becomes eye-popping in his hands. The director has largely made dramas set in ancient China. For his latest, Cliff Walkers, he ventures into the genre of spy movies for the first time. It's no surprise that he's made one of the best-looking pictures of the year, but it offers compelling drama, too.

Set in the 1930s, the story revolves around four special agents – played by Zhang Yi, Qin Hailu, Liu Haocun, and Zhu Yawen – who have been trained by the Soviet Union. They return to China to carry out a top secret mission called “Utrennya.” Their directive is to sneak into the puppet state of Manchukuo to smuggle the only survivor of a Japanese death camp out of the country so that he can testify about the human rights abuses that occurred there. When a traitor sells them out, the group members find themselves hunted. Completing the mission will require avoiding their relentless pursuers.

That's a fairly simple premise. Cliff Walkers tells it in a complicated way – not because it isn't focused but because the whole point is to convey the perilous dynamics at play. There are double-crosses, characters with shifting allegiances, and unexpected revelations. You never know exactly where things stand because they're ever-shifting. A strong sense of intrigue is developed as a result. When no one and nothing can be trusted, an already difficult mission becomes virtually impossible. Some viewers might find this approach to storytelling confusing, although it didn't bother me. It feels like a deliberate choice to depict the head-spinning nature of the spy business.

Zhang Yimou is famous for his use of color. Cliff Walkers takes place in the winter time, so white is the dominant hue. Snow falls from the sky, covering cars and streets. Characters trudge through inches of it. White is used to represent the danger that lurks everywhere and cannot be escaped. The effect is nothing short of breathtaking, as it gives the film a true ambiance. Reading the press notes, I learn that the movie was shot on location in Harbin, in -40 degree Celsius weather. While that was undoubtedly rough on the cast and crew, such authenticity adds immeasurably to the final product.

Cliff Walkers has a handful of thrilling action scenes. They begin with the opening sequence, in which the agents parachute into the snowy woods. (We see it from their perspective, helping us prepare for the adventure ahead.) There's a car chase, a shootout, and some hand-to-hand fighting, most notably inside a cramped train car. Yimou stages these sequences with great style and energy, making them exciting yet keeping them relevant to the plot.

Admittedly, the characters themselves are thinly-defined. That prevents a subplot about two agents' attempt to locate their estranged children from being as emotional as it should be. Otherwise, I was largely captivated by Cliff Walkers. Here's a movie with real vision in both the physical look and the plotting. Zhang Yimou has made nothing like it before, and neither has anyone else.

out of four

Cliff Walkers is unrated, but contains strong violence. The running time is 2 hours.