Surely one of the most frustrating things about espionage, with all its spies and betrayals and shifting mission goals, is that no one ever seems able to figure out what's really going on. The same might be said — in fact, let me say it — of the new Zhang Yimou film, "Cliff Walkers." As with all Zhang movies, this one is beautifully designed and photographed. It's set in the early 1930s, allowing the director plentiful opportunities to deploy period fedoras and luxuriously fur-trimmed coats. Also, the story unfolds in chilly Harbin, a large city in northeastern China, where it appears to snow every single hour of the day — perfect Zhang weather.
The picture begins with a characteristically Zhangian visual flourish — a parachute descent into a snowbound Manchurian forest from the POV of four Soviet-trained Chinese guerrillas — two men and two women — who are intent on rescuing a survivor of the killing fields of the Japanese occupation and bringing his horrific story to the wider world. (Early on, we see Chinese prisoners in a Japanese-controlled execution yard being kicked and cursed and spit upon before being shot in the mud amid cackling laughter.)
But although the four guerrillas are the narrative hinge of the story, it takes awhile, what with all their heavy bundling, to figure out who's who. Before long, it becomes semi-clear that their leader, Zhang (Zhang Yi), is a former newspaper reporter who converted to the communist cause during his sojourn in the USSR, and that another member of the team, the deceptively adorable Lan (Liu Haocun), is entirely capable of strangling a man to death in the lavatory of a speeding train.
Even before they make their way out of the forest into which they've been dropped, the interlopers realize that they've already been betrayed — a pair of men who turn up claiming to be local resistance fighters assigned to assist them are soon revealed to be liars in need of speedy termination. However, the stony-faced intelligence chief Zhou (Yu Hewei), who's been on the team's trail from the outset, has lots more where they came from.
Director Zhang is no stranger to genre — his 1995 gangster flick "Shanghai Triad" was a hit with American critics. But "Cliff Walkers" is his first spy thriller, and he may be too thoughtful for the form. The movie is not thrilling, for one thing, and the plot is barely coherent. Zhang attempts to goose things along with action (a knife in the eye gets our attention). But the occasional car chase offers nothing that's new, apart from the sight of vintage autos sliding around on snowy streets.
If nothing else, the movie should have little trouble getting past Chinese censors. (It's being released in theaters in China and the U.S. at the same time.) Since his international breakthrough 30 years ago with pictures like "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern," Zhang has fallen afoul of Communist Party movie critics on more than one occasion. When "Shanghai Triad" was chosen to be an opening-night feature at the New York Film Festival, the political bosses prevented him from attending. Similarly, they ruled that his 1994 "To Live" be kept out of the Cannes Festival and banned him from making films with foreign financing for five years (later reduced to two). Last year's "One Second," a movie set during the appalling Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, has yet to be released.
One hopes that Zhang — the author of such visionary films as "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" and the 2019 "Shadow" — will never be compelled to see the error of his ways. So it's a little worrying that a postscript at the end of "Cliff Walkers" reads, "This movie is dedicated to all the heroes of the revolution."
Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.