Zhang Yimou’s “Cliff Walkers” is kicking off a multi-territory release this weekend, with day and date outings in North America, New Zealand, and Singapore coordinating with the espionage thriller’s official launch in mainland Chinese theaters on Friday.
That makes it one of the first major Chinese pictures to take advantage of the improving theatrical conditions in the U.S. since the coronavirus sent movie distribution and exhibition industries into near lockdown. That has been a contrast with Chinese cinemas which have been operating largely normally since October, and which enjoyed a record box office at Lunar New Year in February.
The film is a showcase for Zhang’s ability to deliver spectacle with vast numbers of moving parts in different settings. He’s put on live theater performances with several hundred horse-riding extras at an altitude of over 3,000 meters, staged the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and mounted on-screen feats including “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero,” and “House of Flying Daggers.”
“Cliff Walkers” (previously known as “Impasse”) took the film maker to Heilongjiang, in the far northern part of China known as Manchuria. Under Japanese occupation, in the 1930s when the film is set, the region was referred to as Manchukuo. Cold and inhospitable in winter, it is a tough place to film.
Conditions got tougher when production in early 2020 was interrupted by the nationwide lockdown ordered in response to the virus outbreak. Instead of returning to Beijing, cast and crew holed up in situ for 50 days in a local hotel.
“An extended pause like this would have a major impact on any production, especially on the continuity of the story and the actors’ condition. What’s worse was that the weather warmed up, and the snow stopped, messing up everything we’d already done,” said Zhang in comments emailed to Variety, by investor and local distributor Emperor Motion Pictures. “I can’t list all the challenges one by one, but I can say that we’re fortunate to have overcome this challenge.”
Zhang says that getting his cast’s heads straight after the hiatus was the biggest challenge. “The actors’ mental and performance states are the most important thing. I’m not talking about physical changes, but rather getting back into the characters’ state of mind. There shouldn’t be an inkling of difference in their expressions even with 50 days apart.”
The cast is headed by established male lead Zhang Yi, who has a string of credits in China’s biggest actioners including “The Eight Hundred,” “Sacrifice” and “Operation Red Sea” and relative newcomer Liu Haocun (“A Little Red Flower”) as a seasoned operative and a rookie. The pair both starred in Zhang’s “One Second,” which had was a more humdrum shoot, but ran into political and censorship problems after completion.
Zhang is renowned for elevating the careers of several of China’s leading women actors. His proteges have included Gong Li (“Red Sorghum,” “The Story of Qiu Ju,”), Zhang Ziyi (“Flying Daggers”) and Zhou Dongyu (Zhang’s “Under The Hawthorn Tree” and more recently Oscar-nominated “Better Days”).
Early reactions have been cool on the twisty story, but warmer to the style and performances. Chinese reviews website gave “Cliff Walkers” a 7.8 out of 10 rating. It opened Friday in China in second place at the box office, earning $3.31 million by 4pm.
That’s unlikely to deter Zhang. “The process of making a film is one of overcoming challenges, making compromises and a process of persistence,” he said, explaining that persistence comes from a love and passion for cinema that he says still burns brightly. “That’s what keeping you going, and (makes) you satisfied even if you only end up getting 1% or even 0.1% of what you set out to achieve.”
Distribution is by Emperor in Hong Kong and Macau, by Clover Films in Singapore, and by CMC Pictures in North America and New Zealand.