This is the tale of a film you've never heard of: Zhang Yimou, both the celebrated icon of Chinese film and its enfant terrible, embarks on a foray into the spy thriller genre amidst the wintry, dreamlike landscape of Manchuria. Still bruised after his 2020 passion project, One Minute, was struck down by the hammer of Party censorship, Zhang delivers a tale that while appearing nationalist at the outset, rather speaks to the heart of violence, that which is colder than the film itself.
Cliff Walkers begins with its main quartet of operatives splitting into two, as the groups go off in different directions through a snowy forest, their mission to free a Chinese prisoner of war and expose Japanese atrocities. In many aspects, the film plays out like a love letter to the spy thriller genre, as Zhang invokes age-old genre classics such as secret codes, double agents, and skirmishes in train cars. From an auteur famed for his craftsmanship, this film is no exception: the colour grading and light direction lend the snowscapes of Manchuria a noir, unearthly beauty, and at times, the coldness seems to seep through the screen. The dominance of cool tones throughout the film creates an ever-present atmosphere of melancholy; interior scenes are dusky and treacherously lit, with characters' faces cast in sparse yellow light. 1930s period details pervade — heavy trench coats, bowler hats, vintage cars — as Zhang's spies scamper about spiking one anothers' coffee, picking locks, and engaging in general connivery. Though the plot sometimes falters beneath the weight of the spies’ convoluted machinations, the poignant cinematography dazzles in its place, combining with the soaring soundtrack to create an aura of fatalism and melancholia.
Like any good spy movie, in Cliff Walkers, a recurring motif is violence. Yet what sets this particular film apart from the rest is the seemingly passionless, almost mechanical nature of its violence, appalling though it is. Combat scenes are crude, the actions robotic, evoking a sense of detachment — the spies kill, and in turn are killed, because they must, because it is their mission, and nothing else. Naturally, they try to comfort themselves about their realities. For one, a toast is raised to the Communist revolution (“Proletariat of the world unite!”), no doubt with a nod to the audience, but it rings hollow and falls flat in both aspects. The line "everything will be fine when the sun rises" is repeated throughout the film, yet always through pursed lips, even as the spies venture out to meet their deaths. The audience watches them struggle to soften the blow, shield themselves from the staggering weight of the knowledge that the violence they must inflict, and risk their lives facing, is ultimately meaningless.
Through these self-soothing mechanisms, one innately understands that the onscreen heroes fundamentally lack faith in their own storyline, or are in the process of losing that faith. Rather than virtuous martyrs, eager to self-sacrifice for the greater good, our protagonists are pawns of the war machine, beaten down, their lives torn apart and scarred by violence, yet not knowing why. And try as the spies do, no amount of sloganeering can unmake this scar. There is no salvation to be found in easy words; nothing can guarantee a comrade’s safe return, not even one’s own. Nothing can make violence less hollow, or stop it from running its bitter course.
There’s a scene near the end of the film, wherein Zhou, a Communist agent embedded behind enemy lines, must lie to his comrade Lan, in order to conceal from her the harrowing nature of their former comrade's death. Unable to undo such violence, he fights it in his own capacity, by choosing to spare another the torment of knowing of it. The dissonance between what is said onscreen and what the audience knows is underlied by the spies' faithlessness in their mission, in themselves, and at the heart of it all, the movie's faithlessness in any sort of grandiose overarching narrative. We are made to feel uneasy, even if we cannot exactly pinpoint the reason.
In Cliff Walkers, the spies showcase outstanding courage and skill, but it is clear that there are no heroes within this story, only sufferers. And as the film draws to a close, the enemy is still not vanquished. The mechanisms of war and violence continue on their wicked ways — a point that is driven home by Zhou committing a final, dispassionate murder before retreating into the snowscape, his breath turning to fog as the credits roll. Zhang’s deliberate subversion of nationalist tropes and refusal to partake in propagandistic triumphalism (see instead: Independence Day or The Battle At Lake Changjin) withholds the instant gratification of a simple patriotic narrative from the audience. Rather, Cliff Walkers is an ode to violence that is just violence. The sort that has been ongoing for centuries, too old, too deeply entrenched for any to put an end to. The sort that has no meaning. The sort that just is.
Ultimately, I expect that most theatergoers stumbling, blurry-eyed, out of darkened cinema halls, will forget Cliff Walkers within a week or two. It’s fair to say that superficially, the message the film delivers isn’t nearly as obvious or hard-hitting enough to leave a lasting impression on most. Personally, I was never able to forget the film’s frigid beauty, nor the feeling of fatalism and emptiness it left me with. Perhaps to most that saw the film, it was just a pleasurable way to pass the time — which is valid in its own right — but to see past its otherworldly exterior is to find a somber message about the futility of politics and humanity in the face of mindless, empty violence. But even if audiences failed to grasp onto the movie’s themes, leaving the theater with only a sense of hollowness, and an inkling that Cliff Walkers was just missing something, Zhang has, in a discreet way, achieved what he set out to do all this while.