When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there.” Although the legendary mountaineer receives more than one awed mention in Daniel Lee’s true story The Climbers, the motivation of its Chinese team has less to do with the human desire to rise to a challenge than with national pride. Recreating the successful Chinese expedition of 1975 on a massive production budget, Lee forgoes the docudrama route in favor of a blockbuster adventure with exaggerated action sequences and a tacked-on romantic sub-plot.
It starts towards the end of the 1960
expedition with many of the Chinese team being tragically killed in an
avalanche leaving a few survivors to make it to the peak, including assault team
leader Fang Wuzhou (Wu Jing) and photographer Qu Songlin (Zhang Yi). However,
their efforts have been in vain since the mountaineering community is reluctant
to acknowledge the ascent because of the lack of a required photograph from the
top. This is the result of a near-death situation that found Fang choosing to
save Qu’s life over the equipment. It’s a decision that causes resentment to
simmer in Qu over the subsequent years as living under the shadow of shame has
made him staunchly believe that Fang should have put the mission before
China’s mountaineering initiatives are
suspended as the nation enters the Cultural Revolution (delicately referred to
in the on-screen text as a “harsher era”) but Fang and Qu get a second shot at
glory when, in 1975, it is decided that Everest’s height should be re-measured.
They put together a team which includes photographer Li Guoliang (Jing Boran),
Everest obsessive Yang Guang (He Ge), and meteorologist Xu Ying (Zhang Ziyi),
who has recently returned from studying in the Soviet Union and has a history
of unrequited romance with the stoic Fang. After putting a new generation of
climbers through their paces at a boot camp, Fang leads them on a series of
attempts in which rigorous training is severely tested by avalanches and
blizzards that mercilessly dwindle their numbers.
This should be stirring stuff but The Climbers has to settle for being decent entertainment as the screenplay by Lee and co-writer A Lai pushes the nationalistic agenda to the point that the efforts of these true life figures become secondary to concerns of China’s self-image. When a climber’s dying words are, “Get to the top, let the world see the strength of the Chinese”, rather than a message to his family, it’s clear that we’re in fiercely patriotic territory. Henry Lai’s thundering score follows suit, making certain montages feel like vintage propaganda newsreel. This is not a film to see if you want to know what makes a climber tick as individual psychology is swept aside to foreground a common goal.
It is, however, supremely well-made with splendid cinematography by Tony Cheung (it was shot on location in Tibet) and Lee utilizing the technical expertise gained from directing historical action extravaganzas to stage the vertiginous set pieces. Despite the film’s true story status, the stunts are far removed from the authentic mountaineering scenarios seen in Franc Roddam’s K2 (1991) or Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest (2015), instead approaching the silliness of Martin Campbell’s risible Vertical Limit (2000), arguably the nadir of climbing movies. Aside from some occasionally patchy CGI, sequences of extreme danger are impeccably realized and reflect the input of producer Tsui Hark, particularly a nighttime storm which sees the team’s camp swept away and leaves them clinging to a ladder on the side of the mountain. It would have helped if editors Tang Man To and Li Lin could have resisted the temptation for quick cutting, but these sequences are nonetheless sufficiently nerve jangling. There is an also effective variant on the staple moment that sees a flailing climber selflessly preparing to sever the rope in order to ensure the safety of his teammates.
Beyond its abundant spectacle, The Climbers is perhaps most interesting as an attempt to add some dramatic heft to Wu’s action star credentials. Aside from his symbolic guest role in Frant Gwo’s science fiction epic The Wandering Earth (2019), Wu’s success as a leading man has been limited to his formidable one-man army persona in Wolf Warrior (2015) and its record-setting 2017 sequel. However, there are concessions to his core audience, such as free climbing an abandoned factory and sliding rapidly down the mountain to rescue others using whatever equipment is at his disposal. Mostly, though, Wu aims for a humble register and just about pulls it off even if his largely chaste scenes opposite love interest Zhang are rather stilted. If The Climbers sees Wu at the peak of his local stardom, it finds Zhang clinging on to hers. Sidelined in a role that often slows down the action, the once strident actress is thanklessly tasked with making it plausible that her meteorologist would patiently wait for more than a decade for Wu’s emotionally shy mountaineer to express his feelings. The film itself is also a long haul, although one that is eminently watchable if you don’t get waylaid by its jingoistic fervor.
John Berra is lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Renmin University of China. He is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (Intellect, 2010/12/15), co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (Intellect, 2012) and World Film Locations: Shanghai (Intellect, 2014). He has also contributed to Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (BFI, 2014), Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Killers, Clients and Kindred Spirits: The Taboo Cinema of Shohei Imamura (EUP, 2019).