Director: Benny Chan
Cast: Sean Lau Ching Wan, Louis Koo, Eddie Peng, Yuan Quan, Liu Kai Chi, Jiang Shu Ying, Sammy Hung, Berg Ng, Philip Keung, Jacky Wu
Runtime: 1 hr 40 mins
Rating: NC-16 (Some Violence)
Released By: Clover Films Pte Ltd, mm2 Entertainment Pte Ltd and Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 18 August 2016
Synopsis: IIn the early Republic of China, the whole country was trodden by incessant civil wars. The new ruling warlord Cao Ying sent his son Cao Shaolun to take over the remote village Pucheng. Cold-blooded and temperamental, Shaoun killed the innocents and orphans. The guardians of Pucheng arrested him and the guardian commander Yang Kenan planned to execute him after the trial. Zhang Yi, a colonel under warlord Cao Ying, learnt of what happened and came to Pucheng demanding the release of Shaolun. Zhang came across Ma Feng, who learnt martial arts from his mentor. Ma witnessed the outrageous behaviour of Shalolun and refused to take Zhang’s side. He was determined to assist Yang to keep Shaolun behind bars. Zhang failed to rescue Shaolun. Cao’s army invaded Pucheng and caused numerous casualties and deaths. The brave heroes swore to fight the battle to protect their homeland.
With China’s film industry in the throes of a CGI craze (think the most recent ‘League of Gods’ or ‘The Monkey King 2’), it is almost refreshing to see a traditional martial arts blockbuster like ‘Call of Heroes’ that doesn’t substitute the authenticity of real sets or props for computer-generated ones. That means the whip you see Lau Ching Wan crack onscreen as the commander of a small group of guardians for the besieged city of Pucheng is every inch real, for which Lau went through a month of rigorous training to prepare for. It also means the city Pucheng where most of the action is set is also filmed against an actual set, which took its director Benny Chan almost five months to build. Even more comforting is the fact that Chan (who takes top screenwriting credit here among four other co-writers) understands the importance of a good story and strong characters, and uses both to craft a compelling Western about justice and its enforcement.
Oh yes, lest it doesn’t seem apparent from the grave expressions of its lead cast on the poster or its action-packed trailers, Chan has modelled his film firmly on the genre tropes of the classic Western. The opening scene establishes Eddie Peng’s Ma Feng as the mysterious wanderer with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, awoken from his post-lunch stupor at a secluded diner by a stuttering bandit in the midst of robbing its owners as well as the other patrons. Ma Feng is introduced from the point of view of a group of children on the run with their school teacher Miss Bai, who refer to the bearded stranger first as ‘Pigsy’ and after as no less than ‘Sun Wukong’ – and in between subduing them and betraying his own handy set of martial arts skills, Ma Feng admonishes the robbers for their lack of professionalism and antisocial behavior. If you’re familiar with the Western, you’ll know he’s the wild card whose past will come to reckon later on.
True enough, after the requisite character introduction to Lau’s Sheriff Yang Kenan, Ma Feng rides into the town of Pucheng claiming to have no purpose other than follow wherever his horse (which he names ‘Taiping’ or ‘world peace’ in Chinese) takes him. Though sequestered in a deep valley, Pucheng is under threat of invasion by a ruthless warlord Cao Ying, whose equally cold-blooded son General Cao Shaolun (Louis Koo) had mercilessly slaughtered the villagers where Miss Bai and her students had fled from and is preparing to repeat the deed. The army protecting their village has been called into battle with General Cao’s men at the frontlines, leaving the security of Pucheng to Sheriff Yang and his band of guardians. That is scant comfort for its richest citizen Boss Liu, who hires a group of protectors (led by Shi Yanneng) to first and foremost secure the safety of his family and his sizeable wealth.
It is these protectors whom Sheriff Yang confronts at the start upon their arrival in Pucheng, and further down when the opportunistic Boss Liu ambushes the former using his sub-commander Liao (Liu Kai Chi) as bait to release Shaolun from jail. In fact, it is all but clear to Sheriff Yang that Shaolun – who rides into town alone dressed entirely in white at the crack of dawn and proceeds to shoot Miss Bai, her cousin Tieniu (Philip Keung) and one of her students in cold blood – intends to be caught, and is only playing on the minds of Pucheng’s ordinary citizens as well as its law enforcement to see how far they would go to save their own skins. His general Zhang Yi (Wu Jing) interrupts his trial in open court to demand as much, with the ultimatum that he will lead their junior commandant Shaolun’s army to invade the village and rescue him if he is not released by daybreak the very next morning.
To Sheriff Yang, the choice is clear – there can be no justice if it is not enforced – so threat or no threat, Shaolun will hang for his crimes. Yet after an attempted prison break led by two of General Zhang Yi’s subordinates leaves two of Sheriff Yang’s guardians dead, the villagers are left even more cowed by the threat of complete annihilation, turning up en masse to petition Sheriff Yang to release the prisoner in the hope of avoiding war. Therein lies Sheriff Yang’s moral and professional dilemma as well as the movie’s central theme – justice at what costs and to what extents – which is fleshed out poignantly thanks to Chan’s compelling storytelling and his actor Lau’s commanding multi-layered performance - in particular, Lau brings across not just his character’s sense of duty and strict code of law with conviction but also his genuine compassion for the people he is meant to protect.
In the same vein, Ma Feng’s choice will also be ethical (and perhaps much more straightforward) – stay and defend Pucheng alongside Sheriff Yang or simply leave and let them fend by their own defences? Bearing in mind the titular call, it isn’t hard to guess which Ma Feng eventually chooses, especially after we learn of his past with General Zhang Yi as fellow disciples turned bodyguards-for-hire before falling out over the kind of company they are paid to protect. That history also adds texture and depth to their one-on-one showdown at the end – more than just a battle of Eddie’s twin swords and Wu Jing’s spear, it is their ‘brotherhood’ which is also put to the test.
That the clash between the two martial-arts trained actors bristles with ferocity and nail-biting tension is testament to Sammo Hung’s action direction, which complements the robust character drama with four thrilling set-pieces. Eddie’s opening one-against-many fight with the group of robbers is a pleasant appetizer, followed by the much more elaborate and arguably more high-stakes night-time raid (conceived with a none-too subtle emphasis for Sammo’s own son Sammy Hung, who plays one of Sheriff Yang’s fellow guardians). Lau gets to show off his dexterity with his character’s signature whip in a sequence set on a narrow bridge where he is ambushed by Boss Liu’s protectors, but pretty much sits out the extended finale which sees the typically non-violent villagers take up arms to rebel against the tyranny of Shaolun’s troops. It isn’t Hung’s best work for sure, but nonetheless exciting and at times exhilarating to watch.
As its title suggests, ‘Call of Heroes’ is a team effort where the whole is much bigger and better than the sum of its individual parts. Neither the story of a righteous law enforcer who stands up to the oppression of his more powerful enemy or the central theme around the execution of justice is new, but Chan has fashioned a gripping period drama that reinforces the virtue of staying true to one’s morals. As with his previous ‘The White Storm’, Chan’s ensemble cast also deserves credit for the strength of their acting – and even Koo turns out a surprisingly inspired choice sneering and smarming as the heartless villain at the heart of the story. Like we said at the start, this is a refreshingly solid old-fashioned action-packed blockbuster that is also likely to be one of the best Chinese movies you’ll see this year.
(Strong character drama and compelling performances by Lau Ching Wan and Eddie Peng make this refreshingly old-school martial-arts blockbuster of heroism amidst oppression gripping, poignant and resonant)
Review by Gabriel Chong