When the urgent desire to make something beautiful overrides the desire to tell a particular story — and when you are Zhang Yimou, rebounding from a run-in with the Chinese authorities over your last picture, “One Second” — you might end up with a film like “Cliff Walkers.” A gorgeously snowbound period spy movie insulated beneath layers of contorted plotting just as its cast is swaddled in snow-speckled winter furs and fedoras, the film is a muddle of a plot wrapped around a bland, committee-approved message, but mounted with such magnificence it’s possible not to really mind.
The first switcheroo in its three-card-monte construction happens before we’ve even properly seen our heroes’ faces. Like in a Bond movie prologue, four agents parachute into a snowy forest at night. Unlike in a Bond prologue, the blue moonlight filtering coldly through the trees is of as much interest to Zhao Xiaoding’s crisp but rich digital camerawork as the who or why of this covert infiltration. The foursome, it is hastily established, are actually two couples, but after a quick powwow, they split into partner-swapped pairs to avoid detection on their way to nearby Harbin.
It is the early 1930s in north-eastern China, in the Japanese-controlled puppet state of Manchukuo. The four communist agents, led by Zhang (Zhang Yi, from “Mountains May Depart”) are on a top-secret mission to smuggle an escapee from a Japanese internment camp to safety. Zhang pairs up with the absurdly youthful Lan (Liu Haocun) while Zhang’s wife Yu (Qin Hailu) strikes off in the other direction with Chuliang (Zhu Yawen).
Unbeknownst to them, their operation has been betrayed, and dead-eyed local collaborationist official Gao (Ni Dahong) has dispatched teams of his own, masquerading as communist allies, to intercept them. Zhang and Lan “make” their contacts as enemies almost immediately, leading to an exquisitely shot struggle in the woods — action co-ordinator Jung Doo is probably the film’s stealth MVP, delivering fight scenes that are fluid yet believable, like when three characters end up in a caterpillar configuration of strangulation in a tiny train compartment.
Yu and Chuliang, still trust their helpers, however, although we know that they’re actually working for Gao. Or are they? At least one of them, Zhou (Yu Hewei) turns out to be, depending on where you sit, a double agent, a triple agent or maybe a quadruple-crosser? Who knows, perhaps it’s turtles all the way down.
The unknowable loyalties of the double agent form the emotive crux of two recent films in the genre: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Wife of a Spy” and Kim Jee-woon’s “The Age of Shadows.” But here, attempts at similar character-building feel half-hearted. A couple of contrived scenes involve the children that Zhang and Yu had been separated from years before; Yu mentions having met Chuliang during training in Russia; Zhang used to be a reporter. But mostly the screenplay, co-written by Zhang Yimou and Quan Yongxian, keeps the characters at arm’s length, jettisoning human drama in favor of a bunch of turncoats in trenchcoats playing cloak and dagger.
Where Zhang sets his seal on the period espionage thriller is in the sensual details: fabrics and costuming, the Ennio Morricone-style harmonica motif of Cho Young Wuk’s score. Production designer Lin Mu’s locations are immaculate — from a bookshop to a cinema to an abandoned mansion so spooky that “even the ghosts won’t haunt it.” There are grisly torture scenes and lavish set-pieces, like a car chase through the expensively rebuilt Harbin streets. And there are inspired touches of spycraft involving poison pellets, concealed weaponry and an assassin with the foresight to continue smoking his victim’s cigarette out of a car window, so that those surveilling think nothing has happened.
But even by the escapist standards of mid-to-late period Zhang Yimou movies — ever since “Hero,” say, and up to 2018 eyegasm “Shadow” — “Cliff Walkers” feels glossily unreal, like it all takes place in a snow globe. If this mutes its impact it also, thankfully, dampens its propaganda. Aside from a terse end title celebrating the “heroes of the revolution” and a dinner-time toast to the proletariat recited in Mandarin and Russian, the party line that Zhang doubtless had to toe is backgrounded. Even the references to Japanese mass atrocities of the time are downplayed — wisely, given the uncomfortable hypocrisy of a Chinese film mentioning internment camps at this moment, however incidentally. By design or otherwise, “Cliff Walkers” isn’t political enough to offend, or moving enough to last, but it is beautiful enough to pass the time pleasurably. Maybe it’s best represented by a striking moment in which Zhou one-handedly burns up a slip of cigarette paper on which is written some secret message or other: dextrous, hypnotic and hardly leaving a trace.