Producers: Pang Liwei and Luca Liang   Director: Zhang Yimou   Screenplay: Quan Yongxian and Zhang Yimou   Cast: Zhang Yi, Quin Hailu, Zhu Yawen, Liu Haocun, Yu Hewei, Ni Dahong, Li Naiwen, Yu Ailei, Fei Fan, Lei Jiayin, Sha Yi, Wang Naixun and Chan Yongsheng   Distributor: CMC Pictures

Grade: B+

Director Zhang Yimou has sometimes irked the Chinese government with films like “The Story of Qiu Ju” and the recent “One Second,” but this one, dedicated to the heroes of the revolution, could not possibly disturb the communist establishment.  At the same time, it will not disappoint admirers of his extraordinary artistry, which is on full display in the incredibly intricate but amazingly elegant period espionage tale.  

The plot, based on a story by Quan Yongxian, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zhang, is set in the 1930s in the puppet state of Manchukuo, which the expanding Japanese Empire established in the north of China and Inner Mongolia in 1932.  Four Chinese Communist agents, trained in the U.S.S.R., are parachuted into the area on a mission codenamed Utrennya; it involves making their way from the forest where they are dropped to the city of Harbin in order to locate, and transport to safety, a man who had escaped from a Manchurian internment camp and can bring word of the crimes against humanity perpetrated there to the world. 

The agents are two couples—Zhang Xianchen (Zhang Yi) and his wife Wang Yu (Quin Hailu), and Chuliang (Zhu Yawen) and his pretty young girlfriend Xiao Lan (Liu Haocun).  They divide into two groups, with Zhang pairing off with Xiao and Chuliang with Yu, who travel separately by foot and train with the intention of reuniting in the city.  Unfortunately their mission has been compromised by Xie Zirong (Lei Jiayin), a member of the resistance terrorized into sharing what he knows with Gao Bin (Ni Dahong), the collaborationist officer charged with foiling the scheme and his lieutenant Zhou Yi (Yu Hewei), who are working the case along with their team (Li Naiwen and Yu Ailei).  But their efforts are complicated by intelligence that suggests the squad has been infiltrated by a communist mole.

The scenario is extremely convoluted, with plenty of hair-breadth escapes, maneuvers among the agents to inform one another of danger and decrypt secret messages, double- and triple-crosses, foot chases through wilderness and alleyways, car chases through streets, and even some grisly torture scenes.  In a subplot, Zhang and Yu attempt to find their two children, whom they were forced to leave behind in Harbin when fleeing for the U.S.S.R.; that sets the stage for an ending that adds sentiment to a feeling of muted triumph.  This is an instance in which the viewer must be willing to invest a lot of attention to keeping track of who’s who and why they’re doing what they’re doing.  Nor would a bit of knowledge of the historical context be amiss, since the film doesn’t bother to provide much.

The effort is amply rewarded, however.  This is an exciting piece of work, with expertly choreographed set-pieces in ample supply.  It also boasts a cast capable of holding your interest, even if the characters’ motives are more often presumed than explored. 

And it’s simply gorgeous to look at.  Zhang has always been a master at making elements of nature into enthralling motifs in his films, whether in be in his more intimate dramas or his wuxia masterpieces like “Hero.”  In the recent “Shadow,” it was the great washes of rain and water that marked the film; here it’s snow, which dominates the first part of the story, set in the wintry forests where the agents land, and continues into the urban scenes, adding sparkles of light to the dark, forbidding environment.

That element is brilliantly captured in the cinematography of Zhao Xiaoding, but he also revels in the outstanding production design by Lin Mu, with its exquisite periods costumes and vehicles (including not only vintage cars but a thirties train) and its recreations of the erstwhile Harbin (an opulent bookstore and a cinema specializing in Chaplin pictures are particularly stunning).  A cheeky score by Cho Yeong-Wuk, which echoes the strains of past classics, adds to the mood.

Inevitably the complexity of the plot twists sometimes eludes the ability of editor Li Yongyi to keep the action completely clear, but that’s less the fault of the cutting than of Zhang’s concern with visual splendor over absolute clarity.  But though the intricacy of the narrative might lead to some momentary confusion, the magnificence of the images is never in doubt.  One might wish for more human depth to “Cliff Walkers,” but the film’s surface is mesmerizing.