THE CLIMBERS (2019) review

p2569090715In 1960, Fang Wuzhou (Wu Jing) and Qu Songlin (Zhang Yi), members of the Chinese National Mountaineering Team, reached the summit of Mount Everest (known as Qomolangma in Tibetan) from the North Ridge, a perilous achievement that cost the life of their captain. Worse, it later went unrecognized by the international community: after losing their camera during the ascent, the Chinese climbers were unable to provide the necessary photographic proof of their exploit. Since then, Fang and Qu have lived in shame, considered frauds by most. So when an opportunity to renew the exploit arises fifteen years later, they set out to train a new team of climbers, including Li Guiliang (Jing Boran), Yang Guang (Hu Ge), and meteorologist Xu Ying (Zhang Ziyi), with whom Fang has long been in love.

Based on real events and largely shot on location in Tibet (though not-always-seamless green-screen work is far from absent), The Climbers is a massive, government-backed and Tsui Hark-backed undertaking, and director Daniel Lee’s first venture out of the realms of ancient history, wu xia or martial arts in twenty years – since 1999’s Moonlight Express. In “based on real events” however, understand “wildly dramatizing already dramatic events”. Indeed, the two hours of Lee’s film overflow with drama, heroism and tragedy, the core real events heightened with two doomed love stories, heavy foreshadowing, a handful of solemn speeches, repeated tear-jerking sacrifice and, you guessed it, slow-motion flag-waving. Subtlety is absent, propaganda is never far, suspension of disbelief is often required  (ah, jumping across a wide crevasse with an ice axe in each hand, we missed you since Vertical Limit).

Still, it’s a full-blooded, often rousing epic: Tony Cheung’s cinematography is a triumph, contrasting the blinding white splendor of the landscapes with the subtle sepia tones of base camp scenes, there’s moments of riveting danger (the show stopper is a devastating 150 km/h wind that blows away the camp in seconds and leaves the climbers hanging precariously by a ladder), and the starry cast powers even the triter scenes. Wu Jing continues his leaps and bounds as a dramatic actor, though he’s upstaged by Zhang Yi, relentlessly poignant in the most interesting and contrasted role of the ensemble. Jing Boran and Hu Ge take a backseat but provide excellent support, while Wang Jingchun is on hand to occasionally alleviate the solemn proceedings. Zhang Ziyi fares less well: she’s on fine form but given a tacked on role that leads to some of the films’ overly melodramatic surges. Jackie Chan cameos in the epilogue, puzzlingly playing the old version of Hu Ge’s character, despite their absolute lack of resemblance.

Long Story Short: An unsubtle and overstuffed mountaineering epic, The Climbers is nevertheless often rousing, sometimes riveting, and powered by a great ensemble cast. **1/2

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