In Euro-American circles, a common perception of Chinese filmmaking is that directors are first and foremost playing chicken with the government censors. It’s convenient that American critics will often go out of their way to label Chinese films as propaganda, while acting far more reservedly about a film produced from the fortuitous relationship between Marvel Studios and the Pentagon. The reality of Chinese filmmaking is slightly more complex. As any fan of American genre cinema knows, a viewer may have to compromise their own ideological tendencies to enjoy, for example, a cop film, or else be media-literate enough to spot subversion when they see it.
Zhang Yimou knows this, and in his new film Cliff Walkers, he fully embodies the sensibilities of a straight-arrow action filmmaker who is also, slyly and subtly, offering at the very least some self-awareness about his relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. Set in a tempestuous period for the Chinese, when the country’s northern regions were occupied by Imperial Japan, the film follows four spies in the mid-1930s carrying out an operation in the state of Manchukuo, recently occupied by the Japanese in the lead up to World War II.
What matters here are the double- and triple-crosses, of which there are many. The four main spies themselves are vaguely defined from the start, when they land in a forest covered by thick winter clothing, furry hoods and all, to protect from a thick blizzard. Thus, the film begins in a snowfall that will continue for nearly the entire movie, a further layer of obscurity to match the murky allegiances across the main quartet, their liaison within the Manchukuo secret service, and the double agents working on both sides.
Zhang engineers a few set pieces verging on the high-octane, but this is a low-key feature compared to 2016’s gigantic, trans-national 3D schlub, The Great Wall. The most memorable and consequential moments of conflict are caught across eye lines, in close quarters. The triple-agent ultimately working for the spies, Zhou, begins to become the film’s focal point, with several restrained, tense sequences set around his playing of the Manchukuo secret service off the Chinese spies. In one such scene, he appears to blurt out that he is in fact a Communist to one of his Manchukuo accomplices. A long silence befalls them as Zhou sips his tea. Then he reveals his double (triple?) bluff, schooling his younger peer with an “If I were a Communist, what would I do?” speech.
The film remains in this constant, heightened state of confusion, even for the attentive viewer, the gambit being that they will be so dizzied by it as to come away with a sense of hopelessness. How does one untangle the quagmire of political allegiances at play in the region, especially today with a new Chinese superpower and an increasingly aggressive, anti-pacifist Japan reopening old wounds in Sino-Japanese relations? That Zhang seems to end his film with a beautiful dedication to “the heroes of the revolution”, only to follow it with a crystal clear, snowless mid-credits sequence of pure, unadulterated violence leaves exactly the bad taste in the mouth that was perhaps intended.
Thomas Atkinson is studying journalism at City University of London, hailing from the New Forest. He has spent much of the past five years watching movies, and some of the past three years writing about them. His favourite films include Beau Travail, Zodiac, Heat, Only Angels Have Wings, Close-Up and Eraserhead. His life-force largely consists of Ted Danson’s bow ties in The Good Place, Pauline Kael’s books, and the intro to OutKast’s ‘Hey Ya!’, which he rightfully claims to be the greatest song ever written. He has Letterboxd.