Length: 120 minutes
Director: Zhang Yi Mou
Cast: Zhang Yi, Yu Hewei, Qin Hailu, Zhu Yawen, Liu Haocun
Language: Mandarin with English and Chinese subtitles
Release details: In theatres 30 April (Singapore)
3 out of 5 stars
Spy thriller Cliff Walkers marks Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou's return to the silver screen after he was forced to reshoot his 2019 film One Second when it was banned by government censors. Set in the Japanese-controlled 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. Their secret mission, code-named "Utrennya", is to rescue the sole survivor of a prison massacre perpetrated by the collaborators of the Japanese. After being sold out by a traitor, the team is infiltrated by double agents and has to complete their mission in the snowy terrain of Harbin while dealing with moles within their ranks.
The schemes and ruses that the spies on both sides carry out against each other would be more exciting if we were given more compelling reasons to know who we should be rooting for. Ostensibly the "good guys" are the Communist agents and the "bad guys" are the collaborators of the Japanese imperialists, apparent betrayers of their fellow Chinese. But the film expects you to root for the Communists without showing the stakes involved, when both sides are portrayed as doing pretty terrible things to each other, including violent murder.
On the surface, it's just an action spy movie, but for viewers who aren't bona fide Chinese patriots or fans of the Communist Party, or are not familiar with the history of the Manchurian occupation, context setting and emotional stakes are lacking. There is a subplot about two of the Communist agents trying to find their children, who they had to abandon while fleeing the Japanese occupiers, but it's not enough as an emotional anchor.
Perhaps director Zhang was overcompensating after falling afoul of the Chinese government with his last film, which touched on the politically sensitive topic of the Cultural Revolution. As with many films from China these days, Cliff Walkers has an obviously nationalist bent to it. A message from the director via screen titles at the ending of the movie dedicates the film to "heroes of the Revolution".
If you think I'm exaggerating the impact of propaganda in Chinese films, note that China's film and television industry has been managed by the Communist Party's Propaganda Department since 2018, and all performing artists were told by the government-backed China Association of Performing Arts that they are expected to display "love for the party and its principles" and serve "the people and socialism."
To be fair, Zhang Yimou did a good job delivering the action and psychological suspense of spies and double agents trying to outsmart each other. But this film is an example of propaganda getting in the way of storytelling.
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