Zhang Yimou's Cliff Walkers (China 2021) - Movie Review

Zhang Yimou's love letter to cold war spy thrillers. But is it any good?
Director Zhang Yimou
Starring Zhang Yi, Hewei Yu, Lei Jiayin, Qin Hauli
Alternative Names 悬崖之上

If you could trust any Chinese filmmaker to make a decent cold war spy thriller, the first name that comes to mind as got to be Zhang Yimou.

Cliff Walkers  is a definite love letter to the classic genre, full of double crosses and secret agents, set in 1931 in North of China at the start of the Japanese occupation, Yimou delivers a two hour spy thriller that’s easy enough to follow.

What’s this movie about?

Four secret agents of the communist party arrive in Harbin to assist an escapee of a Japanese war camp, to allow him to break to freedom and spread his story of Japanese atrocities to the world.

However an anti-communist agency intercepts and infiltrates the group, attempting to thwart their efforts and uncover the identity of the mole within their agency.

My Thoughts on this Movie

If there is one Chinese movie director I get excited about, it’s definitely Zhang Yimou. The man credited for discovering Gong Li and responsible for some of China’s most beautiful and entertaining films, Cliff Walkers is the second of three major films he had set to release in 2020, with One Second eventually being released in late 2020 after being held up in censorship hell, and the urban crime thriller Under The Light set to release later in 2021.

Cliff Walkers headlined the Chinese Labour Day holiday period of May 1st, and initial user reviews are positive, and on initial viewing of the film and directly after leaving the theatre, I agreed that this was probably a solid 7 out of 10.

But on reflection, I started to notice bits of the film that didn’t really gel. As an old fashioned spy thriller, this movie follows the formula to the letter. A strong and interesting cast of characters is introduced in the beginning of the film, and as the quartet splits up into duets, the first set of double crossing occurs, immediately piquing your interest and demanding you pay attention.

We’re then introduced the to anti-communist agency who wants to stop their mission, but the full details of why are never explicitly explained. As the movie progresses, you start to notice other gaps that aren’t explained. Characters just disappear, or other characters are injected into the storyline with minimal introduction of their purpose.

At one stage, towards the end of the film, I almost thought the initial mission of the quartet had been forgotten about, but thankfully that’s all sorted out before the ending.

An element that’s become all to common with modern Chinese blockbusters is the strong violence, and while its infrequent in this movie, its expectedly gory and unnecessary, and it’s left me wondering who’s artistic direction this is.

Being set in the North of China during the coldest months of the year, the cinematography, set-and-costume design and colour grading work all combine to emphasise this. Characters are rugged up, covered in snow with vapour condensation escaping from their mouths. You really get a sense of the extreme conditions everyone is fighting against, both the weather and their mission.

But I felt the action scenes let the film down in several places. The final gun fight is very stilted, over-edited and a little hard to follow, with shots being fired, cars being hit and people falling over. It’s assumed that people are being shot, but you’re just not really sure who is doing it. Likewise with the car chase scenes that feel more American blockbuster than Chinese spy thriller.


This is still an enjoyable film, but it’s not the masterpiece I was hoping for from Yimou. It has excellent actors, such as Zhang Yi and Lei Jiayin, excellent direction and the storyline is easy enough to follow, its just not as captivating as it could have been and it feels like there are key elements of the movie that are strangely missing.

It’s a thumbs up, but only just. I still think its an entertaining two hours, but just not a film you’ll remember a month after watching, nor rank in Yimou’s top 5 films.

If you’ve seen it, what did you think?