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April 30, 2021

Cliff Walkers


Xuan ya zhi shang
Zhang Yimou - 2021
CMC Pictures

I am not sure why the English language title was changed from Impasse. The new title suggests a very different kind of action film, whereas the story here is about four spies on a mission that continually faces a variety of obstacles. Zhang may be at an artistic impasse following his relative failure with two films, The Flowers of War and The Great Wall, starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon respectively, not achieving the anticipated box office success. Add to that the temporary CCP censorship of One Second, and it appears that Zhang has retreated into making a film that would get easy approval from the government authorities and appeal primarily for the mainland audience.

Those without some knowledge of modern Chinese history might be baffled without some context. The film takes place some time during the 1930s when the northeastern part of China was controlled by a Japanese installed puppet government. The team of spies are Soviet trained Chinese agents who go to the city of Harbin to rescue a prisoner as well as expose how the prison is in violation of international law. There are double agents on both sides, and suspicion everywhere. In case the point is missed regarding any of the film's intentions, there is a final dedication to "the heroes of the revolution".

While the story may be of limited interest, Zhang once again has his pictorialism to fall back on. The opening shot, seemingly abstract, of four white circles above a grey patterned background, is revealed to be an overhead shot of four parachutes over a snowy forest. Zhang has several high overhead shots that make for interesting abstract images. The color palette here is mostly limited to shades of grey, white, black and brown. The clothing is equally dark with most of the characters, including the women, donning fedoras that partially hide their faces. While the spies initially hide in the cover of whiteness of heavy snowfall, most of the film takes place in dimly lit spaces.

The actress Liu Haicun as one of the agents, Lan, follows in the footsteps of previous Zhang protagonists including Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. Liu starred in One Second and is in Zhang's current production, Ju Ji Shou. Here she takes on all manner of villains in hand-to-hand fighting, as well as guns and knives. Time will tell if Liu gets the kind of international fame accorded Zhang's previous muses.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 30, 2021 04:13 AM