If you’ve been wondering why so many Chinese films that have come to your local cinema over the past few years have had nationalistic bent to them, you can thank China’s Film Law. Passed in November 2016, the law bans content that is “damaging [to] China’s national dignity, honor and interests, or [harms] social stability or [hurts] national feelings.” Given that NOMADLAND was recently banned in that country (though is still available here in Hong Kong… for now), I guess the law also applies to directors of films who do the same. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that even acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou/張藝謀 (RED SORGHUM; JU DOU; RAISE THE RED DRAGON; HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS; THE GREAT WALL) is now making films that toe the party line.
CLIFF WALKERS (its Chinese title means “Above the Cliff”) takes audiences back to 1934 when the Japanese controlled the northeast part of China, which they called “Manchukuo” (“Manchuland” would be an apt equivalent in English), and installed a puppet government there. As we’re told at the film’s outset, the Japanese military has built a fortress for inhumane medical experiments there. One man, however, has managed to escape the fortress alive. How? We don’t know. Where is he hiding out? We don’t know that either but a small team of Russian-trained Chinese patriots parachutes into the evergreen forest outside of Harbin on a secret mission code named “Utrennya”, which we’re told a number of times means “dawn” in Russian (it actually means “morning”), to smuggle the man out to safety so that he can inform the world of Japan’s nefarious activities, a comment that elicited a round of snorts and laughter from my audience. When the puppet government learns of the mission, though, they use whatever means necessary to stop the team in their tracks. Included in the mission are husband and wife Zhang (Zhang Yi/張譯, OPERATION RED SEA) and Yu (Qin Hailu/秦海璐, A SIMPLE LIFE; DURIAN DURIAN) who, we learn, abandoned their two young children to go off to Russia, leaving the tots to fend for themselves on the cold, mean streets near the Modern Hotel, Ciulang (Zhu Yawen/朱亞文, THE WITNESS/我是证人) and Lan (Liu Haocun/劉浩存, ONE SECOND/ 一秒鐘). Lan may look and talk like she’s 12 years old but she’s a trained killer with a memory like a steel trap, though we never get to find out if she really does. Helping them along the way is Donnie Yen look-alike Zhou (Yu Hewei/于和偉, I AM NOT MADAME BOVARY/我不是潘金蓮), who has positioned himself as a mole in the puppet government’s security apparatus. But with spies and double agents at every turn, can he be trusted?
Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Maybe Zhang Yimou really has drunk the Kool-Aid or maybe at 69 he has decided to rest on his laurels and collect a fat paycheque. It might just be the latter as the government in 2014 hit him with fines and penalties totalling RMB 7.48 million (roughly US$1.15 million) for having too many children. Given his early work, I’d like to think it’s the latter. Whatever the reason, I can’t believe that he made this rubbish. The movie lacks both structure and tension, has heaps of plot holes, is filled with 1940s film noir tropes like guns that never need reloading, bad guys and gals who wear black leather, a code book that everyone seems to have a copy of but no one uses, a train scene where our heroes all make surreptitious eye contact with each other, snow that falls on one character’s coat but not on another’s, and a high speed car chase. Um, those 1931 Ford Model As only had a top speed of 65 mph, plus they were racing on Harbin’s icy streets. How fast could they realistically have been going? What CLIFF WALKERS does have, though, is plenty of style with great attention (and money) paid to the costumes, makeup, lighting and sets.
As for Harbin itself, Zhang makes good use of the many historic buildings that are still standing today, including the Modern Hotel and its coffee shop, which is turned into a bookstore here. Russian signage is seen everywhere, which would be appropriate given the Russian influence over the city at the time. (If you don’t know why that is, google it.) What is missing, however, is Yiddish signage. In the 1930s, Harbin was home to 15,000 Jews, the largest Jewish community in the Far East. That may not seem like a lot but Harbin’s population back then was only about 500,000 and the Jews who lived there had an influence that outweighed their numbers – especially in the neighbourhood around the Modern Hotel which, oh yeah, was owned by a Jew.
But that’s inconsequential to the story that, for some reason that neither my colleagues nor I could figure out, is told in five chapters. And for a film called CLIFF WALKERS, there are neither cliffs nor people walking. (Yes, I know it’s supposed to be a metaphor but it’s a poor one.) There isn’t even a Japanese to be seen.
CLIFF WALKERS opens in cinemas around the world on Saturday, April 30th. It’s the best looking piece of garbage you will have seen in a long time.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, April 29th, 8:30 am HK time!
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