This wasn’t supposed to happen.
At the beginning of the 2021 summer movie season, when everyone is desperate to unload all the big-money offerings that have been collecting dust since the pandemic… we have a slow weekend at the movies.
The only big release this weekend is the latest Conjuring movie, and I gave up on that franchise ever since the big Annabelle Comes Home crossover exposed how lazy and creatively bankrupt that whole enterprise always was. I’ve already reviewed last week’s big releases, and I was deliberately keeping Wrath of Man in reserve for such an occasion… except that it’s now more or less out of theaters. Damn.
So I did some digging and I came up with Cliff Walkers, directed by Zhang Yimou, best known to American audiences for House of Flying Daggers. This one is a Chinese espionage thriller set in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, just prior to WWII. Sounds interesting enough. As heavily documented as WWII is, that’s a particular aspect of the war we don’t often see in movies. Not since The Last Emperor all the way back in 1987, to my knowledge. So let’s see what we’ve got.
For those who need a historical refresher, there was a time in the 1930s when the Japanese empire made aggressive moves to expand their holdings in the Far East. Naturally, this meant that they invaded neighboring China, making significant inroads through Manchuria in northeastern China all the way down to part of Mongolia. Thus began the State of Manchuria — also known as Manchukuo — which was technically an independent monarchy even though it operated under Japanese rule.
Incidentally, it should come as little surprise that native ethnic groups faced barbaric cruelty during the Japanese occupation, and the state was dissolved with the Japanese surrender in 1945. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We begin with the infamous Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army, responsible for using Manchurian prisoners as unwitting test subjects for unspeakable experiments in biological and chemical warfare. (And remember, this was a solid decade before Josef Mengele did something similar for the Nazis.) The premise concerns a prisoner who somehow escaped from Unit 731, with proof of the war crimes happening on Japan’s watch. Thus the USSR enacts a plot to extract this vital witness, hopefully bringing Unit 731 to international attention.
The Russians turn to four Manchurian refugees (played by Zhang Yi, Qin Hailu, Zhu Yawen, and Liu Haocun) who’ve been extensively trained by the CCP and air-dropped into the woods of Manchukuo. The plan is for the four of them to split into pairs and then meet up with their separate contacts, then go from there to extract the informant.
The kicker: The contacts are Manchukuo operatives.
Yes, it turns out that the prison camps of Manchukuo turned up a CCP agent (played by Lei Jiayin) who was desperate enough to save his own skin that he was willing to talk. The turncoat doesn’t know exactly who got sent over, but he does know roughly where they’ll be and he’s familiar with the secret codes used by the CCP, so that’s enough for Manchukuo to work with.
One CCP team figures out that their contacts are frauds and they’re able to escape the trap. The other team is none the wiser (yet), so now they’re unknowingly operating under the supervision of the enemy. And the two CCP teams have no way of contacting each other. So now it’s a matter of figuring out how the two teams can coordinate without blowing their cover, how to complete the mission in spite of the turncoat working against them, and figuring out who to trust. Complicating matters even further is the possibility of a higher-up in the Manchukuo enforcers who’s covertly working against their own government.
The action is tragically bland, mostly because 1930s automobiles don’t exactly make for the most satisfying car chases and the sequences are edited like the production couldn’t afford to actually destroy the cars. The close-quarters fight scenes are okay, but nowhere near the standards most would expect from Asian filmmaking. Likewise, the shootouts are passable when they could’ve been so much more.
Even the character development feels undercooked. There’s a bit about how two of our CCP operatives have young children left behind in Manchukuo, and that might have done a lot more to humanize two of our main characters if more had been done with the angle. Then again, the film makes a strong implicit point that we’re talking about spies here, not the military. With soldiers, the obligation is to never leave a man behind. With spies, anyone caught or injured gets left behind, with the expectation that they’ll have the good sense to kill themselves or at least die with their mouths shut.
Time of war makes everyone expendable, and it forces individuals to make terrible choices for the greater good. While the movie certainly could’ve gone farther with this theme, it’s nonetheless an elegant statement made in a compelling way.
Most baffling of all, it feels like the survival of our CCP spies is an end in itself. All that stuff about Unit 731 and getting the informant out of the country feels like a distant afterthought, and the informant himself doesn’t even show up until the last fifteen minutes. It felt like an entire reel of film was missing from the third act, that’s how quickly the whole matter is resolved and how little it had to do with the actual plot.
With all of that being said, the film looks beautiful. While I have my issues with the editing (most especially during the action sequences), the whole movie is beautifully designed and shot. The 1930s period setting is immaculately detailed and it all looks sufficiently lived-in. The costumes are the real stars of this show, with deep blacks, crisp lines, and so many wonderful hats.
The color scheme took me a while to get used to, because EVERY SINGLE ONE of the spies and operatives are dressed from head-to-toe in black. Yes, it quickly caught my eye and I knew immediately who I should pay attention to, but the monochromatic costumes did little to help me keep track of who was on which side. Then again, that was probably the point.
Put simply, Cliff Walkers is an espionage thriller. It’s a cut-and-dried espionage thriller, which paradoxically means that it’s complex and intricate and you’d need a goddamn flowchart to keep track of all the twists and reveals and betrayals, and that’s the whole appeal of the genre. If that’s what you like, then you’ll like this movie. And if you’re not up for that, then you won’t find much of anything else here.