Review: ‘Cliff Walkers,’ starring Zhang Yi, Yu Hewei, Qin Hailu, Zhu Yawen, Liu Haocun, Ni Dahong

May 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zhang Yi in “Cliff Walkers” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“Cliff Walkers”

Directed by Zhang Yimou 

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in early 1930s China, the dramatic film “Cliff Walkers” features an all-Asian cast representing the middle-class, wealthy and government spies.

Culture Clash: Four Communist spies, who are on a mission to rescue a former prisoner who witnessed war crimes by Japanese invaders, are betrayed by a traitor and try to stay alive during various deadly threats.

Culture Audience: “Cliff Walkers” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in riveting spy thrillers told from a historical Chinese perspective.

Liu Haocun in “Cliff Walkers” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“Cliff Walkers,” the first spy movie from celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou, tells a captivating and thrilling tale (inspired by real events) of four Communist spies in 1931 China. The spies face life-threatening obstacles not only from their own ranks but also from the Japanese who invaded China during this time period. Much more than the usual “cloak and dagger” story about spies, “Cliff Walkers” has plenty of emotional resonance by realistically showing the heart-wrenching toll on the family lives of spies when these espionage agents go into this line of work.

“Cliff Walkers” (formerly titled “Impasse”) is the first feature-film screenplay from Quan Yongxian. He was previously a writer for the 2021 Chinese drama TV series “Cliff,” which was about spy couple working in Harbin, China. “Cliff Walkers,” which also takes place primarily in Harbin, is an apt title for the movie, since the main characters are constantly on the precipice of danger.

The suspense in this thriller doesn’t let up and will also keep viewers on edge. And although there’s some raw violence in the movie, this isn’t an over-the-top “Mission: Impossible”-styled spy flick where the spies also happen to be stunt masters. These espionage agents have to use their wits more than physical tricks to help them get out of predicaments.

Taking place in 1931, “Cliff Walkers” has a brief written intro explaining the historical context of what is going on while the story is happening. Japan has invaded China, resulting in secret camps where Chinese people are tortured. The puppet state Manchuku in China was controlled by the Japanese during this time period.

In the midst of this political and human-rights turmoil, four Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spies have returned to Manchuku from the Soviet Union. These four espionage agents are doing a secret mission called Operation Utrennya. The operation’s purpose is to rescue a former prisoner named Wang Ziyang, who escaped from the Japanese-operated killing grounds Beiyinhe in China that was evenutally bombed by the Japanese. Because of what he experienced and witnessed, Wang Ziyang could expose war crimes (such as human experimentation) committed by the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731.

The four spies happen to be two couples: quick-thinking and empathetic leader Zhang Xianchen (played by Zhang Yi), a former journalist; Wang Yu (played by Qin Hailu), who is Zhang’s even-tempered wife; Chu Liang (played by Qin Hailu), who is younger and more impulsive than Zhang; and Xiao Lan (played by Liu Haocun), who is Chu’s chameleon-like girlfriend. In the beginning of the story, the four comrades have split into two groups, as decided by Zhang. Group 1 consists of Zhang and Lan. Group 2 consists of Yu and Liang.

During freezing snowy weather, their caper begins. And, of course, there are immediate problems. A betrayal within the CCP spy ranks leads to the deaths of certain people early on in the story. And this traitorous ambush sends Zhang and Lan on a frantic quest to Harbin, in order to warn Yu and Liang about the betrayal while also trying to stay alive. Meanwhile, a fellow CCP agent named Zhou Yi (played by Yu Hewei) has his loyalties tested, since he is embedded with the enemy.

It wouldn’t be a spy story without a chief villain. And in this story, the villain is Gao Bin (played by Ni Dahong), a sadistic enforcer of the Japanese invasion. He represents the type of citizen who will be a traitor if it means he will be in a position of power. The Chinese spies willing to fight for their country have poison pills (kept in a mtachbox) that play a signficant role in the story.

Adding to the drama, Zhang and Yu are separated from their two kids who have become wayward street urchins. Their daughter is 8 years old, while their son is about 5 or 6 years old. At one point in the movie, Zhang is told that the children were last scene begging near the Modern Hotel. It just so happens that the Modern Hotel is where Lan goes with soem trusted allies to hide out.

What makes “Cliff Walkers” different from many other spy movies is the heartbreaking storyline of two spy parents (Zhang and Yu) who have been separated from the children and are trying to reunite with them, while the parents also having to fulfill their government responsibilities in their line of work. If they abandon their jobs, they are at risk of being punished and perhaps permanently separated from ther children. It’s a stressful and life-threatening tightrope that’s pulled in man different directions throughout the story.

Zhang’s portrayal of the spy whos shares his name is one of courage and humanity. It’s not an overly flashy role, but there are action sequences where Zhang the spy shows impressive combat skills. Lan is the other character who has many physically challenging action scenes. Frequently, she is the only woman with any power in the room. And she uses that power wisely.

While making “Cliff Walkers,” director Zhang Yimou went for as much realism as possible. According to some production information from the movie’s U.S. publicist: “Historical locations in Harbin were 100% rebuilt just for the film, such as the city’s central street, Asia Cinema and Martyr Hotel which were completely recreated in 1930s style. Lead actor Zhang Yi grew up in Harbin and in fact lived on a street that was one of the rebuilt filming locations. During filming, he was able to find his parents’ old house there and video chatted them to show them how accurately recreated it was.” And the freezing, snowy weather wasn’t faked for the movie.

The accurate production design and the striking cinematopgraphy make “Cliff Walkers” an visually intriguing movie to watch. But the movie wouldn’t work as well, if not for the success it has at maintaining a tone of urgency and suspense, thanks to the absorbing screenplay and well-paced direction. “Cliff Walkers” is not a movie for people who are negatively triggered by scenes of violence and torture. But for people who can handle on-screen depictions of the realistic cruel inhumanity that’s inflicted during political oppression, then “Cliff Walkers” offers a compelling look that is filled with despair and hope, just like real life.

CMC Pictures released “Cliff Walkers” in select U.S. cinemas on April 30, 2021, the same day that the movie was released in China.