Zhang Yimou brings spy movies to the limelight in China
Zhang Yimou brings spy movies to the limelight in China
In short: a film that should not be missed by any fan of Chinese cinema or culture, but without great ideological ambitions. Nevertheless, the heroism of some people who risked everything in pursuit of ideals is always a good model for these times without risks or ideals.
Spring 2021 has brought us a new work by Zhang Yimou. Titled in English Impasse or Cliff walkers, its Chinese title 悬崖之上 could be translated as «Hanging on the Cliff».
The film takes place in the 1930s, in the Manchurian Region which at that time was ruled by the Japanese and was what was called the Manchurian Puppet Regime as it had officially been considered as the kingdom where the last emperor of the Chinese Qing dynasty, who were of the Manchu nationality, was retiring. This is necessary to know to put in context the action, which begins with the parachute descent of four spies trained in the Soviet Union, which then we will see have a very special mission, which is to find the only surviving witness of a Japanese prison camp, we remember that precisely that region was practically taken over by the Japanese, to denounce internationally the brutality of their regime, as it was suspected that they had carried out activities not allowed by international law, possibly chemical or bacteriological warfare experiments, as in fact was done in that kind of facilities.
Immediately we see the spies split into two groups and the action moves to the courtyard of a police station in Harbin, where 4 prisoners are being executed with signs of having been tortured. The last of them agrees to talk to avoid death and denounces the arrival of the four spies to the secret service. The danger they face is immediately evident, as the government spies set a trap for two of the commandos, who manage to save themselves and begin their mission. From that moment on, the film has fast-paced action, not always particularly violent or eventful, but always with the feeling that something could happen at any moment, which is what spy movies usually have in store for us.
All the action takes place in the snowy streets of a city in Manchuria, a region associated in China with extreme cold and snow. Each of the commando groups has to try to fulfill its mission and meet with the other, while the secret police of the government want to prevent it. Soon they manage to catch one of the commandos and infiltrate and gain the trust of the other group. But as it usually happens in these movies, new surprises appear, and the group that seemed destined to failure and death then seems to have some chance to carry out their mission successfully, and even to survive.
Without going into details about the plot, the director really manages to give a masterful touch to the action atmosphere of the cities, especially at night, to that snowy environment in which the whole film takes place, as well as to the development of an action in which suspicion is the norm, and betrayal also seems to be the order of the day. In this development, it provides the viewer with some particularly beautiful scenes, such as the pursuit in the snowy streets of several vintage cars, etc.
The film has been very well received by the local Chinese audience, by the critics, and even at the box office its success has been reflected, having been seen by more than 24 million viewers in the first weeks, generating revenues of almost 100 million dollars. While it is true that in recent years there have been some television dramas that have dealt with this subject and have had a certain acceptance, this film is considered to have put the spy genre in China in the limelight. Well actually, it’s nothing more than what one would expect a master in his 70s to do. But also this film, which comes just as the Chinese Communist Party is about to celebrate its first 100 years of life, is a message to the authorities from the director, who saw his last film, One Second, criticized as if it were an attack on the party or the country.
I believe that the director with this work is vindicating his freedom to deal with different themes of China’s ancient and modern history and to give his personal vision of them in an artistic and aesthetic way. And for that reason, knowing the country in which he lives, perhaps it was interesting to emphasize that he is not a director against anyone but a director in commitment to his own art.
Well, it goes without saying that all the technical aspects of the work are impeccable and that the script does not have any kind of plot fissure. In addition, among the performances, the young Liu Haocun stands out for her novelty, acting for the second time under the orders of Zhang Yimou after her debut in One Second, I think in a rather more mature role.
In short, a film that should not be missed by any fan of Chinese cinema or culture, but without great ideological ambitions. Nevertheless, the heroism of some people who risked everything in pursuit of ideals is always a good model for these times without risks or ideals.
Year of production: 2021.
Running time: 120 min.
Directed by; Zhang Yimou.
Screenplay by Quan Yongxian and Zhang Yimou.
Liu Haocun as Xiao Lan
Yu Hewei as Zhou Yi
Zhang Yi as Zhang Xian
Qin Hailu as Wang Yu
Zhu Yawen as Chu Liang
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