Tag Archives: Yimou Zhang

Whack A Mole

Cliff Walkers

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.

The Umbrella Academy


by George Wolf

There was a brief interruption, but we now return to the usual mastery of Yimou Zhang.

While 2016’s The Great Wall (Zhang’s first English language film) stood less than tall, the return to his native tongue results in yet another rapturous wuxia wonder, one nearly bursting with visual amazements and endlessly engrossing storytelling.

Taking us to ancient China’s “Three Kingdoms” era, director/co-writer Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern) creates a tale of martial artistry, lethal umbrellas and political intrigue gloriously anchored in the philosophy of yin and yang.

After generations of warfare, the cities of Jing and Yang have been peacefully co-existing in an uneasy alliance. Now, thanks to a brilliantly devious plan for revenge that’s been years in the making, that fragile peace is threatened.

While the tragedies and backstabbings recall Shakespeare, Dickens and Dumas, Zhang rolls out hypnotic tapestries filled with lavish costumes, rich set pieces and thrilling sound design, all perfectly balanced to support the film’s dualistic anchor.

Working mainly in shades of charcoal grey with effectively deliberate splashes of color, Zhang creates visual storytelling of the grandest spectacle and most vivid style. There’s little doubt this film could be enjoyed even without benefit of subtitles, while the intricate writing and emotional performances combine for an experience that entertains and enthralls.

But seriously, you will never look at an umbrella the same way again.


Just Another Brick

The Great Wall

by Hope Madden

You’ve seen the trailers for The Great Wall, right?

It looks terrible, doesn’t it?

It’s not.

It’s not good – let’s not get crazy. But I was expecting Warcraft bad – maybe worse – and The Great Wall is a borderline-passable piece of monster-laden eye candy.

Matt Damon plays William, a bow-for-hire who travels with a band of ne’er-do-wells into China seeking the legendary black powder.

Dreams of selling this weapon in the West keeps the Irish…Scottish…what kind of accent is Damon attempting?And why does it only show up in about 25% of the film?

Anyway, William and his mercenary friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal) must eventually surrender to the color-coordinated forces within The Great Wall – who actually have better things to do.

After that, director Yimou Zhang (House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern) does what he can to visually wow an audience and draw attention away from the leaden screenplay.

Zhang is a nearly unparalleled visual showman, and though Great Wall never approaches the style of his best efforts, the aesthetic will keep your attention and create wonder. Vivid color and rhythm drive a joyous spectacle of monster carnage once the CGI swarms come calling.

And then we’re back inside, with one-dimensional characters stumbling through obviousness about greed, trust and teamwork.

Zhang takes advantage of 3D as few filmmakers have. The approach rarely serves a larger purpose than to transport and amaze, but those who come to The Great Wall seeking a larger purpose should prepare for crushing disappointment.

The generally strong Damon struggles with more than the accent. Though glib humor enlivens several scenes with Pascal, the deadly serious tone the film takes and the broadly drawn characterizations of the Chinese warriors make chemistry or human drama impossible.

But damn, look at those hills and swirling bodies, the acrobatics of monster mayhem.

It may be that the only thing The Great Wall did right was to swap out director Edward Zwick (associated early in development with the film) for Zhang, because if you weren’t so distracted by how glorious this film looks, it might really be as bad as the trailers made it out to be.