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The Climbers

A Film Review

The Climbers
Directed by Daniel Lee
China 2019
Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles
122 minutes in duration

Available on iTunes and Amazon.
Trailer available on YouTube.

If there was ever something worth doing right the first time so that you don’t have to do it again, climbing Mount Everest would probably be it. The film The Climbers is based on the true story of Chinese mountaineers in the 1960s who successfully summited from the north side but failed to document it with photographic evidence. After being challenged by the international community, they embarked on a second expedition to prove themselves by doing it again in 1975.

While the plot is obviously about the perilous climb that plays out with stunning landscape visuals, that wasn’t the takeaway for me. Various other reviewers have bashed the computer-generated effects, character development, production details, etc. And sure, this movie wasn’t perfect. But to write it off as a sub-par mountain climbing movie, I would say, misses the point.

To begin, this is not the first film ever made about climbing Mount Everest but it is a film about climbing Mount Everest the Chinese way (twice). Everything from planning, team dynamics, decision-making, training methodology, to conflict and various types of interpersonal relationships, all display values and characteristics that are uniquely (and quintessentially) Chinese.

For everything the film is not, it is everything that it means to be Chinese.

Especially for those who are less familiar with the Chinese culture and want to see how traditional cultural values are lived out in a modern (well, 1975) context, this is for you. We see how, culturally, Chinese people have a hard time receiving grace, accepting being one for whom a sacrifice is made. We see classic collectivism play out as time and again, the team prioritizes honor of country and care for the group, even to the point of their own deaths. The film overflows with 义气 (yìqì)—a spirit of immense loyalty and self-sacrifice. All of these, exhibited in the Chinese way.

This is our mountain; we must reach the summit. Let the world see the strength of the Chinese.

You might be reading this and thinking, “Hannah, what you’re describing is just a lot of China-pride, and maybe even nationalistic propaganda.” Maybe, but I choose to see it as Chinese-pride, that this film celebrates the ethos of a culture, even while the plot celebrates a nation. And even if it is China-pride, so what? Critics are often slamming films made in China for being too patriotic, and yet have no problem watching films about Americans saving the world (in every conceivable situation). To be clear, I enjoy those American films as much as anyone; all I’m saying is, let’s not hold a double standard.

The reality is, China is not going to stop making films like this. They are just getting started and even the western film industry has been forced to recognize that China’s influence (and financial investment) in this sector cannot be ignored.

So what’s one to do? I say, grab your popcorn and buckle up for a fascinating cross-cultural experience.

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Image credit: The Climbers trailer.
Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau was born and raised in Canada. Growing up with immigrant parents from Hong Kong gave her a rich perspective on both Eastern and Western cultures. She has spent her adult life in Asia, beginning in China serving through work in the marketplace. With a colorful and hard-earned career in …View Full Bio

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