'Limbo' And 'Cliff Walkers' Review: 2 Films Boast Visuals For The Big Screen Chinese director Zhang Yimou tells an epic tale of subterfuge and spies in Cliff Walkers. And in the Scottish dramedy Limbo, a young musician is stranded in a starkly beautiful no-man's-land.
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Double Feature: Refugees In 'Limbo,' And Spies And Subterfuge In 'Cliff Walkers'

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

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Movie Reviews

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

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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)

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