Yimou Zhang’s Cliff Walkers looks amazing but suffers from poorly-written characters and stiff performances. Everything feels overly-contrived, from the dialogue delivery to the spy trope execution, so the spectacular visuals aren’t enough to distract from the film’s biggest flaws. The wartime premise and overall aesthetics remind of the excellent 2019 film Beanpole, but whereas the Russian director Kantemir Balagov complements his visuals with character development, Zhang favors style over everything else.
Set in the 1930s, Cliff Walkers follows four Chinese communists who attempt to locate an escapee from a Japanese internment camp. Zhang Xianchen (Zhang Yi) teams up with a young woman named Xiao Lan (Liu Haocun), while Zhang’s wife Wang Yu (Qin Hailu) sets off with Lan’s boyfriend, Chu Liang (Zhu Yawen). Like a typical spy drama, Cliff Walkers includes double-crosses and cryptic dialogue, which would be fine if the main players were collectively defined as characters. Unfortunately, their personalities and motivations are smothered by heavy snow from sequence to sequence, which might as well have been accompanied by a keyable graphic that reads “VISUAL STYLE.”
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As many critics have already pointed out, Cliff Walkers features wonderful production design and cinematography. The problem, however, is that Zhang creates a world that seems too alien, too fake. The Spaghetti Western-style music creates a specific mood, but a subsequent tonal shift implies that the filmmakers just wanted to pay homage to legendary composer Ennio Morricone. There’s a mixed bag of genre tropes and familiar aesthetics but little exposition to allow the audience to better understand the characters. As a performer, Haocun stands out the most, but only because she seems out of place with her youthful demeanor. I kept waiting for a big acting moment in Cliff Walkers, but no one in the main cast ever steps up. Zhang and screenwriter Quan Yongxian get the spy talk right, along with all the characters’ spy movements, but the film doesn’t seem invested in connecting with the audience through realism, as everything is touched up with a Cinema Wand.
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As an American critic, I may have overlooked some of the cultural nuances in Cliff Walkers. In fact, I recently had to re-watch the 2021 Japanese film Ride or Die to better appreciate the structure and character development. With Zhang’s film, though, there’s not enough to warrant a re-visit. The aforementioned Beanpole is re-watchable because of the visual design’s connection to the narrative subtext, and how it relates to the heavy-duty lead performances. It’s fine that Cliff Walkers was seemingly produced with a spy movie formula in mind, but the poor character development and uninspired performances result in a forgettable film.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.