Zhang Yi, Yu Hewei, Qin Hailu, Zhu Yawen
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To lovers of art cinema, the career of Chinese master Zhang Yimou might seem a puzzle, if not a disappointment. Yimou burst on the international scene in the early 1990s with his artful small scale humanist dramas. Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and The Road Home (1999) were all arthouse successes. These films often worked with a small canvas and concentrated on the struggle of the isolated or disadvantaged individual in a way that could resonate with audiences across the world. The films combined a superb visual style with great scripts and believable performances.
Yimou has continued to make films (he has made 30+ so far) but both his focus and scale have evolved. In recent times, he has made epic films that showcase the confidence of the new China. Hero (2002) was one such example. The subsequent effort The Great Wall (2016) (which starred Matt Damon no less) was a critical and commercial disappointment. Still, it would be unnecessarily narrow to proceed only from the Western assumption that Yimou had sold out. Each film has to be taken on its own merits.
This new one is an intricate historical spy drama. It is set in Manchukuo in Northern China in the 1930s. The invading Japanese have set up a puppet regime there. The setup of the film is that four undercover agents have to parachute in behind enemy lines to try and conduct a guerrilla style mission. To make maters nice and complicated, their chances have been compromised from the beginning by a double agent hell bent on sabotaging them.
The film opens with a breathtaking and kinetic sequence in which the heroes drop into a wintery forest through the swirling snow. Yimou has the chops to bring off scenes like this so well and the whole look of the film – from the vintage cars to the 1930s décor – suggests a big budget.
There are problems however, that no amount of technique and lavishness can paper over. Spy plots, with their endless double crosses and secret rendezvous and coded assignations, are fun for a bit, but here they accumulate in a way which is both overloaded and hard to continue to care about.
Yimou throws everything at the project but often with a sense of diminishing returns and, at two hours, the film feels pretty bloated. He is perhaps aping American cinema values but big and brash isn’t always best. And, as with so much Hollywood fare, a thinly-disguised patriotism soon obtrudes. It is sort of smuggled in but audiences will see through it, and whether you sense the taint of propaganda or not, it cannot make us like the film.