by George Wolf
At this point, Yimou Zhang could bring a two-hour rendering of my neighbor’s lawn maintenance regimen to the big screen, and I’ll be there opening night.
After Shadow, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern and so many more, Zhang has proven himself a bona fide stare-at-the-screen-in-awe visual master.
He’s no slouch in the storytelling department either, and those skills move a little closer to the spotlight in Cliff Walkers, screenwriter Yongxian Quan’s intricate tale of espionage in the years before WWII.
It is 1931, and four Russian-trained Chinese communist party agents parachute into snow-covered Manchukuo (a Japanese occupation that was previously Chinese Manchuria) to put operation “Utrennya” into action. Their orders are to locate a surviving witness to a Japanese massacre, and smuggle him out to shed light on the atrocities.
The four agents agree to split up in pairs, and the double-crosses come early and often. As one pair of agents attempts to find and warn the other, a cascade of spy games, torture, accusations and suspicion gels into a suspenseful and engrossing ride.
And though Cliff Walkers may be less overtly showy than Zhang’s usual visuals, it is no less stunning. The constant snowfall becomes a character in itself, deadening the footsteps that run through the streets and enveloping the wonderfully constructed set pieces in gorgeous color contrast.
Many a butt is smoked in Cliff Walkers, and many a deadly stare is leveled in the criss-crossing searches for moles, snitches, turncoats and witnesses. Blood will be shed, and sacrifices will be made.
And again, Yimou Zhang will make it easy to get lost in, and nearly impossible to look away from.