Almost everything the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou touches takes on the feel of an “epic.” So if the director of “House of Flying Daggers,” “The Great Wall,” “Hero” and “Flowers of War” turns his camera towards the Spy Game, you can bet that whatever he does with the tropes, traditions and “tradecraft” of the genre, it’s going to look like few espionage thrillers that came before it.
“Cliff Walkers” is a blend of Hitchcockian intrigues and John Woo shootouts, all set in a “Zhivago” winter wonderland that would give David Lean a smile. It’s filled with Reds and red herrings, a Chinese thriller that celebrates “heroes of the Revolution” and wears its Bolshevism with pride.
The setting is wintry 1930s Manchuria, which the Japanese invaded and occupied in 1931. Four agents (Zhang Yi, Haocun Liu, Qin Hailu, Zhu Yawen) parachute into a remote forest as snow falls on the evergreens. It’s starkly beautiful, right up to the moment when the camera gives us the jumpers’ point of view — tumbling and crashing through tree limbs, momentarily buried under snow.
Our two “couples” have been training in Russia for months for their special operation, but their first decision is to “split up” and re-meet in Harbin, the city where their quarry, a witness to a Japanese massacre, is hiding out.
And right off the bat, they’re double-crossed. One “team” learns it and fights its way out of a jam. The other continues on its way, oblivious that they’re traveling with “traitors” as their guides. Much of “Cliff Walkers” is about Team One trying to warn Team Two, the ways they try to get that message across and the intrigues of their pursuers, the secret police force staffed by Chinese/Manchurian collaborators hellbent on foiling this “mission.”
While the story is rather pointlessly broken into “chapters” (“The Operation,” “The Edge,” “The Danger,” etc.), the complexities pile on top of “traps” in ways that make for a splendidly knotty yarn.
It’s fascinating to see Zhang work in the hoariest of spy conventions such as the paper clip that’ll get you out of handcuffs every time, the “Are you ready to talk?” (in Mandarin, with English subtitles) torture, “moles,” the spiked coffee, shootouts with guns that never need reloading until that moment of truth, and the brawl in the confines of compact train sleeping compartment.
He uses these elements in creating problems for his characters, and in concocting genre-proven solutions to the various dilemmas of these spies who don’t come in from the cold.
The characters have inner resources that have them putting mission above everything. Yu (Qin Hailu) is teamed up with an agent not her husband, but she and her spouse Zhang (Zhang Yi) have a pact — “Whoever survives, find our children.” The kids were left behind when they slipped into the USSR for training. That’s a bit of “communist fanaticism” straight out of early Cold War Hollywood.
Lan (Haocun Liu) is the youngest, a slip of a thing. You have to wonder how she’ll be tested and if it’ll be plausible. Partnered with the older, tougher Zhang, don’t bet against her in a fight, though.
There’s suspense around every corner — the threat of discovery, exposure or capture at every turn. And sometimes, when trickery fails and you can’t outrun the mobs of black-hatted trenchcoat-clad secret police on foot or in vintage cars (on icy, snowy streets), there’s nothing for it but to shoot it out and hope for the best.
Through it all, we sense the cold and see the snow — showering down, sticking to the omnipresent hats, mountains of it (not the best backdrop for “white” subtitles, kids) to dash through on foot or in cars in the rabbit warren streets of 1930s Harbin.
Zhang’s first films to travel abroad were “Red Sorghum,” “Ju Dou” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” sumptuously-detailed period melodramas that we remember for how they Technicolor looks, but live or die on good casting and solid performances.
There’s nothing in “Cliff Walkers” that we haven’t seen in many a prior spy tale, and it’s not a picture you’d single out for great acting moments. Clean up the blood, and you could call it almost old-fashioned. It’s still a corker of a thriller that keeps you guessing which Hero of the Revolution will sacrifice him or herself next.
MPA Rating: unrated, graphic violence
Cast: Zhang Yi, Haocun Liu, Yu Hewei, Qin Hailu, and Zhu Yawen
Credits: Directed by Zhang Yimou, script by Quan Yongxian and Zhang Yimou. A CMC release.
Running time: 2:00