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Double Feature: Refugees In 'Limbo,' And Spies And Subterfuge In 'Cliff Walkers'

Apr 30, 2021
Originally published on April 30, 2021 4:38 pm

With Hollywood blockbusters still missing-in-action — it'll be weeks before A Quiet Place Part II makes your local cinema a less quiet place — it's nice to report that other countries are happy to fill American screens.

Scotland's refugee dramedy Limbo, opens in select art-house theaters this weekend, as does Cliff Walkers, a spy-flick from celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou, and both boast visual palettes eminently worthy of the big screen.

Limbo's is stark and wind-swept — a fictional island in the Hebrides that's been outfitted as a holding camp for would-be Scottish immigrants. It offers sparsely furnished rooms for maybe 20 young men, all of whom appear disoriented, bored, or both. It's hard to imagine a more persuasive limbo.

Omar (Amir El-Masry), a sad-eyed 19-year-old musician, has arrived with just his oud, a guitar-like instrument he hasn't played since leaving Syria for reasons we'll understand later.

Farhad (Vikash Bhai) is his buddy, an Afghan who's modeled his moustache on Freddie Mercury's, and has been in this refugee camp almost three years without quite grasping the local lingo.

"That's where they give the free eggs," he tells Omar, who looks at the sign and asks, "What's a 'range egg'?"

Accommodations are spartan — no wi-fi, and only a single public phone in the middle of a field. And there's a well-intentioned but scattershot cultural awareness program that offers the refugees tips about the country they've applied to for asylum.

Tips on, say, how to behave in a disco, in the unlikely event they should find themselves in one. "A smile is not an invitation" reads a legend on the blackboard as their instructor (Westworld's Sidse Babett Knudsen) dances seductively in the classroom..

Their plight as refugees is depicted in Limbo as desperate, but also wryly comic, as if writer-director Ben Sharrock sees them as stuck in a real-life Waiting For Godot, stranded in a starkly beautiful no-man's-land, hoping against hope that it will prove more hospitable than the ones they left behind.

Liu Haocun as Zhang Lan in Cliff Walkers, a spy thriller from Chinese director Zhang Yimou.
CMC Pictures

The landscape is even more beautiful in the breathtaking opening shot of Zhang Yimou's Cliff Walkers, the camera looking down on four white circles drifting across a dense Chinese forest. Then the point of view shifts to below those circles — four parachutists crashing into tree branches so laden with snow, they're instantly buried.

But they bounce up, pistols drawn, squinting in all directions. It's 1931 and they're Chinese agents, trained in Russia to fight the Japanese who've set up torture camps in Manchuria.

Before they quite get their bearings they're separated and up to their eyeballs in far more than snow. Allies who aren't what they seem, enemies who may be double agents, lies, traitors, double- and triple-crosses. And that's all before they've even gotten where they're going.

Zhang, celebrated for both masterworks (Raise the Red Lantern), and pop hits (House of Flying Daggers), can't seem to make a film that isn't visually exquisite. Here he revels in the period details — sleek, fitted trench coats, vintage cars, a drowning-in-neon movie theater playing Chaplin's The Gold Rush and sets his Communist spies to dismantling 1930s train cabins, picking locks with paper clips, drugging their own coffee, and generally playing with genre tricks that were time-honored when Hitchcock used them. All while slipping, sliding and — especially — shooting in a glistening, frigid landscape that would make Dr. Zhivago feel right at home.

In China, Cliff Walkers is a nostalgic and patriotic tale — dedicated to the heroes of the revolution. But in this moment, when audiences are nostalgic for a more recent past, it plays like Zhang's homage to the movies, dedicated to the heroes who may soon return to cinemas.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Hollywood blockbusters are still missing in action. It'll be weeks before "A Quiet Place Part II" makes your local cinema a less quiet place. But other countries are happy to fill American screens while we're waiting. And here are two - a refugee dramedy from Scotland called "Limbo" and an espionage thriller from celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou called "Cliff Walkers." Critic Bob Mondello says both films are worthy of the big screen.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Omar and Farhad are refugees in Scotland - actually, on a fictional island just off the coast of Scotland. And it's hard to imagine a more persuasive limbo.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIMBO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Bet you never thought you'd end up here, pally. We're looking at a 25% population increase with you lot arriving.

MONDELLO: There are only 20 refugees, so that'd make the population of the island about 80, which is probably generous. It is windswept, with a single public phone in the middle of a field and a well-intentioned cultural awareness program that offers the refugees tips about the country they've applied to for asylum. They will, for instance, need to be able to answer questions about their past.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIMBO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) So we thought the term, I used to, will come in handy. For example, before I came here, I used to have a dog called Snuflemeuler (ph). But then she got rabies, so I had to kill her.

MONDELLO: OK then. Omar is a 19-year-old musician who's arrived with just his oud, a guitar-like instrument he hasn't played since leaving Syria for reasons we'll understand later. Farhad's his buddy, an Afghan who's modeled his moustache on Freddie Mercury's and has been in this refugee camp for almost three years without quite grasping the lingo.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIMBO")

VIKASH BHAI: (As Farhad) That's where they give free eggs.

AMIR EL-MASRY: (As Omar) What's a range egg?

MONDELLO: In "Limbo," their plight as refugees is depicted as desperate and also wryly comic, as if writer-director Ben Sharrock sees them as stuck in a real-life "Waiting For Godot," stranded in a starkly beautiful no man's land, hoping against hope that it will prove more hospitable than the ones they left behind.

The landscape is even more beautiful in the breathtaking opening of Zhang Yimou's "Cliff Walkers," the camera looking down on four white circles drifting across a dense Chinese forest. Then the point of view shifts to below those circles or parachutists crashing into tree branches so laden with snow, they're instantly buried. But they bounce up, pistols drawn. It's 1931, and they're Chinese agents trained in Russia to fight the Japanese, who set up torture camps in Manchuria. Before they quite get their bearings, they're separated and up to their eyeballs in far more than snow - allies who aren't what they seem, enemies who may be double agents, lies, traitors, double- and triple-crosses. And that's all before they've even gotten where they're going.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

MONDELLO: Zhang, whose films are always visually exquisite, revels in the period details - fitted trench coats, vintage cars, a drowning-in-neon movie theater playing Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" - as his communist spies dismantle 1930s train cabins...

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS SHATTERING)

MONDELLO: ...Pick locks with paper clips, drug their own coffee and generally play with genre tricks that were time-honored when Hitchcock used them...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

MONDELLO: ...All while slipping, sliding and shooting...

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

MONDELLO: ...In a glistening, snow-white landscape that would make Dr. Zhivago feel right at home. In China, "Cliff Walkers" is nostalgic and patriotic tale dedicated to the heroes of the revolution. But in this moment, when audiences are nostalgic for a more recent past, it plays like Zhang's homage to the movies, dedicated to the heroes who may soon return to cinemas. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.