‘Cliff Walkers’ Review: Double Crosses and Double Agents

“Cliff Walkers,” the new picture from the protean Chinese director Zhang Yimou, arrives here after a hiccup in his filmography.

“One Second” (2019), the follow-up to his startling film “Shadow,” released in the United States the same year, had been slated to compete in the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival but was withdrawn by the Chinese government in what many interpreted as an act of censorship.

It’s likely that “Cliff Walkers,” which is dedicated to “All the heroes of the revolution,” passed through official channels unimpeded. This spy thriller takes place in the early 1930s, during the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria and northern China, and depicts near-superheroics on the part of its daring, sometimes self-sacrificing main characters.

The movie is set in and was shot in Harbin, a city in Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province, an area that came under significant Russian influence during the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The snowy settings start with a forest and extend to city streets lined with unique architecture, where small gangs of black-clad spies pursue each other on foot to thrilling visual effect.

The cast, led by Zhang Yi and Liu Haocun as a seasoned operative and a rookie, is appealing. The movie’s multiple double and triple crosses are apt to induce whiplash, and they underscore the ways in which espionage resembles theater.

The numerous action set pieces would be memorable even if the plot points didn’t eventually fall into place, which they do. The filmmakers’ treatment of Japanese war crimes is trenchant; the movie makes clear that the wounds China suffered have not been forgotten. Call it patriotism or nationalism, the director and cast really sell it, complete with some blatant tear-jerking for the finale.

Cliff Walkers
Not rated. In Mandarin, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.

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