This sort of spartan chase narrative (co-adapted by Quan Yongxian and Zhang) is as relentless as it is grim: characters’ backstories are tucked into asides during otherwise negligible dialogue exchanges, and there are only a few moments of tension-relieving humor. I’m not entirely convinced that there’s more to “Cliff Walkers” beneath its captivating, glassy surfaces. But maybe there doesn’t need to be, not when Zhang and his collaborators seem to have accomplished everything that they set out to.
Granted, you might hope for more from this suggestive period drama. But the makers of “Cliff Walkers” rarely give viewers enough time to process what they’re looking at, since so much of Yongxian’s scenario is about moving characters from one place to another.
Yongxian’s story is not personal, because it’s ultimately about martyrdom and utilitarian self-sacrifice. These superhuman values are foregrounded as soon as the Chinese spies crash-land in a snowy Manchukuo forest. They split into two teams, immediately detaching themselves from their romantic partners in order to ensure that they’re only thinking about their mission.
Married couple Xianchen (Yi Zhang) and Yu (Hailu Qin) separate from each other without much complaint—though they do decide that “whoever makes it sends for our children”—and so do young lovers Chuliang (Yawen Zhu) and Lan (Haocun Liu). “Sorry,” Chuliang says to Lan before they part ways (but after he tries to kiss her). “I didn’t think we’d be separated.” She looks surprised, but doesn’t otherwise respond.
There’s a little more to the movie’s villains, but not much. In an early scene, a small group of Japanese officials warm themselves up by passing around a tin flask. After that, they execute a group of Chinese political prisoners. The Japanese don’t seem to care about their terrified victims or their dire task. In fact, the Japanese only really come alive when they spit alcohol all over the trembling Chinese spies. This is an energizing ritual for the Japanese; or at least, that’s how it’s presented, without any other contextualizing information. The Japanese soldiers’ impassive behavior speaks as clearly for them as Xianchen and Chuliang’s reflexive, stoic actions. So the chase that follows—the Japanese try to use Chuliang’s team to draw out Xianchen and Yu—is mostly unambiguous, though we sometimes don’t know who is working with the Japanese, or if they’ll be discovered by the Chinese spies. Action is often the thing in “Cliff Walkers.”