SINGAPORE— The Climbers opens with a dizzying scene as a mountaineering team approaches the summit of a mountain under adverse conditions. The team is buffeted with high-speed winds, a relentless snow storm and waning visibility. But this is no ordinary expedition, and this is no ordinary mountain. It is 1960, and China has sent a team to scale Mount Everest – or Qomolangma (“Zhumulangma” in Mandarin) as they insist, because it is their mountain - from the steeper and more treacherous North Ridge, a feat that has never been achieved before.
Only three members from that expedition make it to the top and claim the victory on behalf of China, but as they lost the camera they brought up the mountain and have no photographic proof, the international mountaineering community cannot officially recognise their attempt. Disappointed and full of regret, team leader Fang Wuzhou (Wu Jing) is assigned to work shovelling coal in a factory while political and social unrest raises its ugly head in China.
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Fifteen years later, Fang is commanded to report to the Everest training camp, along with his old team members Qu Songlin (Yi Zhang) and Tibetan guide Jiebu (Lawang Lop). This time, they have to train and lead a new team that includes photographer Li Guoliang (Jing Boran), meteorologist Xu Ying (Zhang Ziyi) and Sherpa Mudan (Quni Ciren). Their mission: to climb the North Ridge again, and to bring back photographic proof for the glory of the country.
The release of The Climbers in China was timed for the National Day festivities, which marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. So it is no surprise that the movie is full of jingoistic nationalist pride and melodrama, and very little realism or critical commentary.
There is a lot of artistic liberty taken in the name of entertainment, including one memorable and wildly improbably scene involving a ladder and multiple runaway boulders. While most of the movie was shot on location in Tibet and rewards audiences with panoramic views of otherworldly beauty, the CGI is patchy in places, which is a real shame. That said, the action sequences in the movie are gripping and suspenseful, and will keep viewers on the edge of their seats as climbers cling on for dear life.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the plot, which highly fictionalises the story of China’s official Everest expeditions and includes some details which may test viewers’ suspension of disbelief. The characters are also flat and barely even two-dimensional, and are mere vehicles that director Daniel Lee uses to bring across a bland message about patriotism. As a result, viewers may find it hard to engage with these melodramatic facsimiles of characters.
The Climbers is nationalism masquerading as an action film. It does have some things to say about individual versus collective good, but in the end nothing changes. All the usual messages about persistence, hope and the resilience of humans ring hollow here. If nothing else, this movie is a good reminder about China’s ambition for soft power and what the world looks like to audiences on the mainland.
Score: 2.5/5 stars
The Climbers opens in cinemas on 10 October, 2019 (Singapore).