In an unusual distribution strategy, Cliff Walkers opened day and date in both the United States and its native China. This may be a mere showbiz footnote, but it does make Cliff Walkers one of the first feature films to be shot in 2020 and released in 2021, just like any regular movie would have been, had there been no pandemic. (Production in China took place before, during, and after that country's brief encounter with Covid-19; it wrapped at a time when film production was all but nonexistent in the West.)
Cliff Walkers – there's nothing literal about the title, it just alludes to the precarious mission of its characters – is a hybrid gangster and spy film. Set in 1931 during the Japanese occupation of Northern China, the story follows four Communist Chinese agents – two heterosexual couples, in fact – who parachute into enemy territory then separate, in order to locate and smuggle out a comrade who has witnessed Japanese atrocities and needs to tell the world what he has seen.
Much spycraft and shooting ensues: Seemingly every one of these agents' contacts turns out to be a double agent working for the occupying army, while one of the top-ranking officials in the local military post is an ally in disguise. It all gets rather complicated, and the story might lose you if you're not paying constant attention. Yet Zhang frankly seems more interested in his shootouts, his chase scenes, and his cool characters sporting fedoras and trenchcoats in a city caught in the middle of an endless blizzard. (If you like snow, you'll love Cliff Walkers.) If you can't follow the proceedings, at least you'll be treated to lots of wintery eye candy.
The Chinese government has long had a love/hate relationship with Zhang – or more to the point, a praise/censor relationship – and if the director has developed a "one for me, one for them" system of filmmaking, then Cliff Walkers is definitely "one for them": American audiences, and perhaps Chinese audiences, will roll their eyes at the blatant pro-Party propaganda that frames the proceedings. Yet politics ultimately plays second fiddle to action and suspense. Cliff Walkers is by no means an unmissable movie, but it has a distinct personality and a (literally) cool style.