In 1931, Japan invaded China in what is now known as the Second Sino-Japanese war. In the north east of the country, Chinese Manchuria became the puppet state of Manchukuo. With help from both the USSR (as it was then known) and the United States, small pockets of the Chinese population opted to fight back in a whirlwind of subterfuge and sabotage.

It is against this historical backdrop that Cliff Walkers is set. Director Yimou Zhang – the man behind Hero, House of Flying Daggers and the Matt Damon flop The Great Wall – brings all the elements of a classic spy thriller together to deliver a narrative that is utterly confusing yet spectacular to watch.

Centering around four spies – Zhang Xianchen (Zhang Yi) and his wife Wang Yu (Qin Hailu), plus younger couple Chu Liang (Zhu Yawen) and Xiao Lan (Liu Haocun) – and their mission to smuggle a survivor of a Japanese prison camp across the border in order to expose the treatment of the Chinese. Their mission is codenamed Operation Utrennya (the Russian word for ‘dawn’). All four of the spies are part of a larger network who have received combat and espionage training from the former Soviet Union.

The film opens with a disorientating point-of-view shot of four spies parachuting in blizzard conditions into the middle of a forest. The nervy visuals immediately set you on edge. Each spy is bundled up in thick furs, matted with heavy snow. This is quickly followed up by a scene in a Japanese camp where freezing, bloodied prisoners and lined up to be executed; their blood a vermillion river against the pure white of the snow.

Unlike Lust/Caution, another spy thriller set in the 1930s, there is no eroticism or glamour here. Everything and everyone feels dangerous. There are no slick city meet ups or femme fatales in red lipstick. Initially, everyone here is bundled up against the elements, with seemingly endless snowfall causing chapped lips and red noses. Everyone dresses in various shades of grey, black and dark blue. Only as the spies move out of the forest and towards their target, do a mix of thick Russian furs and classic 1930s trilbys and trenchcoats appear.

The cinematography is, at times, breathtaking. There’s a beautiful series of overhead shots as a shoot-out takes place along labyrinthine alleyways; with the dark coats and hats of the adversaries making their way along the snow. Views of the snow capped city at night – lit only by passing trams or the occasional car – give way to the rich mahogany of a spiral staircase in a bookshop. These images are accompanied by Cho Young Wuk’s beautiful score of searing strings and tension building bass.

There are a few key scenes which stand out for all the right reasons. Watching Lan carefully place an iron key in a door – a beautiful close up of the key actually slotting into the lock – knowing what is on the other side is one of the most visually tense moments you’ll ever watch. The torture scenes are grim in their realism. Zhang is bloodied, lacerated, swollen and choking on his own sick in a damp, dark basement room. The sequence on the train is straight out of an Agatha Christie – sideways glances across the carriage; secret codes scored into dust; sleight of hand tricks to swap travel passes. It’s really cleverly done. There’s also a neat little nod to another Communist witch hunt in the form of a cinema post for Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.

Liu Haocun, as Lan, stands out for all her doe eyed innocence. She seems like the weakest, her frailty making her an obvious choice to perish in the snow. Yet, she proves to be one of the more mentally and physically resilient in the spy ring. She is neatly contrasted by the merciless Sector Chief Gao (Ni Dahong), who seems to relish in the opportunity to torture and humiliate. Arguably, though, the most interesting character is that of Agent Zhou (Yu He Wei). Without giving too much away – much like the character – he seems to be playing a dangerous game of playing one side off the other and Yu He Wei plays the role to mysterious perfection.

That being said, the plot really does become rather convoluted the further the film progresses. At times, it makes a LeCarre novel look like a pre-school book. There are so many characters introduced – with no back story or real effort to establish them properly – that it can be hard to keep up. There is also escape after daring escape and double (and even triple) crossing agents. At times you do really have to remind yourself which side a character alleges to be on.

The over-riding mission – or plot – never changes but the entanglements that all the characters bring are what cause the confusion. As a result, the film really seems to lose its way during the last 45 minutes or so, which is a real shame.

Offering a glimpse into a moment in history that may not be familiar to many, Cliff Walkers is a visual treat that, unfortunately, fails to deliver on both character development and clarity.

Rating: ★★½

CLIFF WALKERS will be released in U.S. and international theatres on April 30, 2021.