Produced by celebrated spectacle-peddler Tsui Hark for co-writer/director Daniel Lee, this is the latest in a run of preposterously patriotic yet enjoyable Chinese event movies. It pays stirring tribute to Fang Wuzhou, a humble, Mallory-worshipping mountaineer who led a successful ascent of Everest in May 1960, declaring “the whole world will remember this day”.
Nobody really does, unfortunately. No doubt this is down to the loss of the expedition’s camera equipment during an avalanche, with the consequent shortfall in photographic evidence prompting some in the climbing community to have their doubts. The film compounds his nightmare by having Fang (Wu Jing) return to base camp to learn his beloved Ying (Zhang Ziyi) is departing to study meteorology in the Soviet Union.
Cheering his return to the summit will also require 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. You should be able to cling to the traces of a sports-movie arc discernible beneath the layers of bombast.
After dramatising the 1960 ascent, Lee’s film skips forwards 15 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 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 the gusto and pace put many of 2019’s American blockbusters to shame, and – right through to a wildly overcranked final act that throws up surprises like spindrift – Lee balances vertiginous, windswept set-pieces 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 makes for a rock-solid figurehead, playing Fang as an inwardly resilient everyman with ahead-of-his-time parkour skills, who is presumably as closely guy-roped to a national ideal of masculinity as John Mills in Scott of the Antarctic. Hold on through the closing credits for a cameo that feels like an official seal of approval.
Source: The Guardian