You can’t deny that the last several years have been the most versatile for actor Wu Jing. Any expectations of him always being the pound-for-pound heavy-handed screenfighting contender for every scene he’s done continues their descent out of the proverbial window and down the canyons of the Himayalas where the celebrated cinematic action hero journeys next in Daniel Lee’s The Climbers.
1960 was the year that three surviving members of the Chinese Mountaineering Team summitted to the top of Mount Everest (“Qomolangma” in Tibetan). For laureates Fang Wuzhou (Wu Jing), Qu Songlin (Zhang Yi) and Lin Jie (Chen Long), their harrowing climb to the top was the greatest moment in history with a notable national heroism cosigned to their efforts in the years to come.
It was also resigned to a short celebration in an unfortunate turn of events brought to light by questions surrounding a lack of photographic and video proof documenting the summit. Despite the reasonably dangerous circumstances that prevented evidentiary means of their climb, the team’s heroism became mired in a cloud of doubt that would ultimately rob them of their deserved glory.
The ensuing ire is especially observed by Fang as it takes its toll on his waining relationship with girlfriend Xu Ying (Zhang Ziyi) who plans to live abroad and expand on her meteorological studies. Fast forward to 1973 as the former team members learn as do Beijing and all of China that the government is reassembling the mountaineering team once more.
Aside from the prominent bittersweetness and regrets of the team since their disbandment, it’s a chance for Fang, Lin and the injured Qu – who now serves as base commander – on several fronts: To find common ground and redeem themselves in the eyes of a country that has diminished them, and to put their faith and trust in a history making opportunity with a new team and new blood. For Fang, it also presents an opportunity to rekindle what he lost fifteen years ago with Xu.
After settling back in the Himalayas and establishing base camp, Fang learns of Xu’s arrival and her assignment to the exhibition with a meteorological team on hand. Despite their year’s old dismissal of their courtship and concurrent business-focus, the feelings are still there, and as the film goes, it’s only a matter of time before the roaring winds of Everest have anything to say on the matter.
Lee’s take on the historic journey of The Climbers is beholden to the usual array of interpersonal relationships to cohese to drama and enhance the imminent danger our protagonists face. Wu’s Fang proves to be the most physically apt and capable through as he performs impressive feats of climbing, course running and stunts – from what would have been one of the most endearing on-screen marriage proposals, to pulling grand-scale feats of life-and-death manuevers akin to those seen in movies like Cliffhanger (1993) and Daylight (1996).
It’s not long before the mountain itself becomes a predictable symbol of the romantic rift between Fang and Xu. Their relationship still bodes as believeable and it helps that Wu and Zhang each turn in some strong performances in this latest outing from Lee. To whatever is the measure, you can see the depth in their characters and respective portrayals from time to time, adding value to their craft on screen in service of film.
The only other romantic arc in The Climbers pairs actor Jing Boran and Chinese/Tibetan actress Choenyi Tsering, playing news photographer and experienced climber Li Guoliang and ancillary unit member Hei Mudan, respectively. The intially angst turns into something a little too ineffectually playful as both characters slowly warm up to each other, and despite what should nonetheless portray a touching finale, still bookends a second fiddle romance.
At the end of the day, The Climbers is all about the climb itself; Fables personify Everest as a cruel deity no one should challenge. As our heroes make the climb, windows narrow for each joruney, temporal and toughening force winds blow tents and utilities blow away like leaves, and frostbite and gangrene, and even make-or-break freak accidents are all unfriendly travel companions on their grisly adventure to the top of a mountain that all but stands in the way of their absolution.
Going forward, a story like The Climbers wouldn’t be such without its fair share of tragedies, and the few that occur do lend considerably well to the story. With Wu’s Fang carrying the brunt of the thrilling adventure, The Climbers is a film that promises a solid and often captivating edge-of-your-seat action drama.
You get a little something different from Lee’s Wu Jing/Zhang Ziyi two-hander, on top of promising add to China’s emerging trends of rescue-themed features next to releases like Wu’s recent sci-fi success, The Wandering Earth, and Dante Lam’s fiery 2020 Eddie Peng thriller, The Rescue. Next to a brief one-legged Jackie Chan cameo, the compelling, emotional journey of The Climbers hits the spot as an exhilirating man-against-nature thrillride, and won’t leave you stranded in the cold.