At this point in his career, director Zhang Yimou has reached a stage only so many filmmakers can dream of. A self-assurance in whatever project he sets out to do. Where you can sense in the filmmaking and the flow of the story a movement of complex elements at work between the storytelling and the technical aspects. It is only at such a stage that Yimou could make his first spy film, Cliff Walkers, and it come out so intricately fascinating as it ultimately does though there are moments in the set-up you worry he might not be able to establish the many perspectives required as he, literally, drops four Chinese Communist Party agents into enemy territory.
One of Yimou's recurring themes in his movies is the resilience of Chinese people in the face of hardship and adversity. For his newest film, Yimou chooses to cover such a theme in a true historical context, setting the narrative in the 1930's in the Imperial Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (located in the northeastern China) before World War II erupted. Immediately, Yimou works to establish the hostile environment that the four leads need to maneuver through, depicting first the unforgiving snowy environment they parachute into and then the iron fist control that the Japanese have through a depiction of several Chinese rebels dying by firing squad. This, of course, sets up the main stakes as one of these rebels turns traitor and outs the four spies along with their mission (code-named “Utrennya”) where they intend to extract a former prisoner who could expose crimes committed by Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army in front of the international community.
In attempting to establish the four spies as well as the authority figures that are hunting them throughout the mountains (and then the city of Harbin), Yimou is determined to get the story moving, but almost loses the characters in route as he gives very little set-up for the individual characters. While it can be granted that this is a natural part of the spy genre to deal in anonymity, I couldn't help struggling to identify the leads for the first 10-minutes as all of them are covered in thick robes and very little focus is given to their faces. That being said, Yimou perhaps did this as a way to create intentional stress from the audience's perspective, to drop us into the chaos of the situation. What is clear is as the story unfolds, Yimou tightens the threads he is weaving into the larger plot, and once established, the natural domino effect of the storylines keeps you guessing while rewarding you with revelations. There are the slightest moments Yimou gets lost in his own clever twists, but reestablishes the tightening of the reigns quickly that gradually offers a fascinating and informative dive into the spycraft and the characters' motivations. One thing is for sure, he never loses sight of the danger these characters are in.
A great deal of credit needs to be given as well to the cast who all play their parts with conviction and subtly, the latter being essential as the characters' actions are much like a good poker match. You're not sure where they are going until they decide when to reveal their hands. But each time they do, Yimou adds stakes and worry for the spy characters. However, special credit needs to be given to actor Zhang Yi who plays the former journalist-turned-CCP agent Zhang Xianchen. His character in particular is put through the emotional ringer (and perhaps is the initial emotional focal point of the story) and has some of the more daring action sequences. This emotion is then passed onto Yu Hewei who plays Zhou Yi, a CCP agent embedded within the enemy, and offers a double-layered performance where he both exposes great intrigue in his role while also being simply impacting with every action he takes. To reveal much else is to reveal many of the impressive twists Yimou offers.
What can be said is that on a technical level, the film is superb. Particular attention needs to be given to cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding. Having worked with Yimou on seven of his recent films (and being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinemaography for his work on Yimou's 2004 film House of Flying Daggers), Xiaoding is in sync with the filmmaker's direction at every turn. Several moments see the camera "merging" with the perspective of various characters, adding to the fear of the unknown that might wait around the next corner. There is a reason why Yimou is known for his visuals and Cliff Walkers is no different, but Xiaoding's cinematography is a big part of why those visuals succeed with a dynamic relationship between the camera and the narrative. This is enhanced by composer Jo Yeong-wook's score that adds soul to the sometimes obscure scenes being observed.
Overall, Yimou's first spy film is a magnificent effort worthy of his talents. One where you're not quite sure who will live and who will die even as the credits begin to role. Perhaps that is another trait of a filmmaker who has reached his level of skill set; where you're wondering what will happen to these characters after the plot ends. I did and I kind of wish the story kept going. Or maybe that's just a testament to Yimou creating that much of immersive experience.
Performances (Particularly that of Xianchen and Hewei).
Narrative and Twists.
Initial struggle to establish the characters in the set-up.
Occasional loses itself in it's own twists.