The Climbers ***
Dir: Daniel Lee. With: Wu Jing, Zhang Ziyi, Jing Boran, Zhang Yi. 125 mins. Cert: 12A
Produced by legendary spectacle-pedlar Tsui Hark for co-writer/director Daniel Lee, this latest in a run of preposterously patriotic yet not unenjoyable Chinese event movies pays stirring tribute to Fang Wuzhou, the humble, Mallory-worshipping mountaineer who led a successful ascent of Everest in May 1960, declaring “the whole world will remember this day”.
That nobody really does is down to the loss of the expedition’s camera equipment during a mid-climb avalanche, the consequent shortfall in photographic evidence prompting some in the international climbing community to have their doubts. The film compounds this failure by having its Fang (Wu Jing) return to basecamp to learn his beloved Ying (Zhang Ziyi) is departing to study meteorology in the Soviet Union. Peaks and troughs, as they say.
Swallowing his climb back whole requires some adjustment to a mode of storytelling that is 80% score-driven. Thunderous trumpets announce every step Fang makes in the right direction; keening strings signal lovey-dovey business. Western viewers should be able to cling to the traces of a sports-movie arc discernible beneath the layers of bombast.
After the prologue, Lee skips forwards fifteen years to the point when Fang was handed his comeback opportunity: overseeing a youthful squad of mountaineers attempting to measure Everest in unsettled weather conditions – the type of widescreen mission impossible that simultaneously banishes demons, restores national pride and wins back errant lovers.
Subtle it is not: one crew member’s dying words are “This is our mountain; we must reach the summit. Let the world see the strength of the Chinese.” Yet its gusto and pace put many of 2019’s American blockbusters to shame, and – right through to a wildly overcranked final act, throwing up surprises like spindrift – Lee balances vertiginous, windswept setpieces with satisfying character beats.
Zhang proves wanly decorous (and the pigtails she’s obliged to wear to pass as a college student are a lost cause), but the twinkly-eyed, benignly smiling Wu, a star in the East, makes for a rock-solid figurehead, playing Fang as an inwardly resilient everyman with ahead-of-his-time parkour skills who’s presumably as closely guyroped to a national ideal of masculinity as Johnny Mills in Scott of the Antarctic. Hold on through the closing credits for a cameo that feels like an official seal of approval.
The Climbers opens in selected cinemas today.