International Festival Premiere
懸崖之上 (Xuányá zhī shàng)
China, 2021, 120’, Mandarin
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Original Story: Quan Yongxiang
Script: Quan Yongxiang, Zhang Yimou
Photography (color): Zhao Xiaoding
Editing: Li Yongyi
Art Direction: Lin Mu
Costume Design: Chen Minzheng
Music: Cho YoungWuk
Sound: Yang Jiang, Zhao Nan
Action Design: Jung Doo
Visual Effects: Samson Wong
Producers: Pang Liwei, Luca Liang
Co-producers: Xu Jianhai, Wang Jun, Jason Siu, Zhao Haicheng
Executive Producer: Fu Ruoqing
Co-executive Producer: Alex Yeung
Production Companies: China Film Group Corp., Emperor Group, Shanghai Film Group, Huaxia Film Distribution
Cast: Zhang Yi (Zhang Xianchen), Yu Hewei (Zhou Yi), Qin Hailu (Wang Yu), Zhu Yawen (Chu Liang), Liu Haocun (Xiao Lan), Ni Daohong (Gao Bin), Li Naiwen (Gao’s henchman), Lei Jiayin (Xie Zirong)
Date of First Release in Territory: April 30th, 2021
After a string of disappointments in recent years – the critical and box office failure of his first English-language film The Great Wall (2016) and the censorship problems encountered by his more recent One Second (2020) – Zhang Yimou has returned to critical and commercial success with an impassioned historical film that, while dedicated to all the heroes of the Revolution, manages to avoid the trap of political propaganda. Cliff Walkers, originally entitled Impasse in English, is a period thriller set in Harbin, Manchukuo, a puppet state created by the Japanese Empire in the early 1930s in collaboration with officials of the deposed Qing Dynasty.
The story revolves around four Chinese Communist Party agents who, after extensive training in the Soviet Union, return to Harbin to carry out a mission called “Utrennya” (“Dawn” in Russian): they must help the sole survivor of a concentration camp escape from Manchukuo to avoid the risk that he could testify against Japan before the international community, revealing the crimes against humanity committed by the Japanese army.
The film opens with an action scene that is both spectacular and romantic, and which immediately sets the pace and the muted atmosphere of the whole film: the four – two women and two men – are parachuted into a beautiful snow-covered forest (the Xuexiang National Forest Park in Heilongjiang), and without a moment to waste, they divide into two teams, distributing cyanide tablets to be used to commit suicide if captured. The group is made up of two couples: Zhang (played by Zhang Yi) and Yu (Qing Hailu) are married and have left two young children in Harbin, of whom they have no news. Chuliang (Zhu Yawen) and Lan (Liu Haocun, the young actress launched by Zhang Yimou in One Second, who in Cliff Walkers has the voice and face of an innocent child but the willpower and a brain of steel) are a younger couple. To avoid the risk of their partner being used as leverage, the couples separate, teaming up with the other’s partner.
Soon after their separation, Zhang and Lan’s team is approached by local contacts, but Zhang immediately realises that this is a trap, and that the supposed allies are actually collaborators with the Japanese government – the mission plan was revealed by a CCP agent who caved in under torture. From that moment on, the two will have to play a game of double jeopardy – which will become a game of triple jeopardy with the appearance of an infiltrator in the ranks of the collaborators – pretending to go along with the enemies in order to protect the mission, while at the same time trying to alert Chuliang and Lan’s team to the treachery. The success of the mission will depend on the CCP agents’ ability to be as ruthless as their enemies and not to give in to their emotions; in the rare moments when they let instinct overpower reason, they become frighteningly vulnerable.
The film maintains a quick-fire pace to the end, backed by a brilliant soundtrack that emphasises and heightens the constant tension. The ruthlessness of the fight is told without reticence, with detailed and frightening torture scenes bordering on those usually associated with horror films. The cinematography by Zhao Xiaoding, a long-time collaborator of Zhang Yimou, is excellent, as is to be expected in a film by the great director: the story unfolds under the constant snow that whitens the setting while all the characters wear dark clothes – it is hard at times to distinguish one from the other, as if to underline the cancelling effect that war has on human beings. It is worth noting that even in a genre film like Cliff Walkers, Zhang Yimou has managed to insert a small romantic homage to the art of cinema: part of the action takes place around a movie theatre in the centre of Harbin, and the theatre is called Asia.
Zhang Yimou (Shaanxi, 1951), the most well-known filmmaker from the People’s Republic of China in the West, began his career as a cinematographer. He made his debut as a director with the film Red Sorghum in 1987. He is a leading exponent of the so-called “Fifth Generation” of filmmakers and is a director, producer, writer and actor. A prolific and eclectic author, he does not shy from experimenting with different film genres. His films have won countless awards at the most prestigious international film festivals, including three nominations for Academy Awards.
1987 – Red Sorghum
1991 – Raise the Red Lantern
1992 – The Story of Qiu Ju
1999 – Not One Less
2002 – Hero
2004 – House of Flying Daggers
2009 – A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop
2016 – The Great Wall
2020 – One Second
2021 – Cliff Walkers