While most people may not be familiar with Cine Asia, world cinema fans will know it as the distributor of titles such as Thai film Chocolate, Japanese crime horror Ichi the Killer and martial arts films Ip Man and Ip Man 2. Now, it is returning to the scene with its first release since 2012.
Directed by New Police Story and Shaolin director Benny Chan, Call of Heroes is set in 1914, after the collapse of China’s Qing Dynasty. When a man enters the village of Pencheng and commits a series of murders, guardian Sheriff Yang Hak-nan (Sean Lau) discovers the criminal is Cao Shaolun (Louis Koo), the sadistic son of warlord Cao Ying. Hak-nan is soon faced with a dilemma; upholding justice by executing Shaolun and sentence the village to death, or let him go in an act of peace.
I remember Benny Chan’s directorial work on the 1995 Donnie Yen TV series Fist of Fury, in which he balances thrilling action and emotional turmoil. Here, however, Chan delivers a western-themed martial arts feature, a twist on a genre recently dominated by wuxia and hardcore violence.
Narrative-wise, Call of Heroes is a combination of 13 Assassins and Stephen King’s Storm of the Century – on one side, there is a sadistic antagonist sparking a struggle with impossible odds; and on the other, you have the collective fear of a community that throws morals out of the window. While Call of Heroes includes the themes commonly used in martial arts films such as loyalty and power, there is more to this story than a reluctant hero.
The fact that Cao Shaolun is a cold-hearted bastard reinforces the severity of Hak-nan’s dilemma -he wants justice to be served, despite the threat of certain death, yet wants to stay true to his duty as sheriff. His moral stance echoes in comparison to the other protagonist, wandering martial artist Ma Feng (Eddie Peng) who chooses to be carefree but finds himself personally involved in Hak-nan’s dilemma than expected. Geng’s presence in the film grows gradually from a comical character to a fully fledged hero that is inspired to do the right thing.
While director Benny Chan focuses on creating a grand, epic feature that is beautiful to look at, action director and kung-fu legend Sammo Hung delivers ambitiously creative fight scenes. With set pieces such as a drawbridge surrounded by bamboo spikes and a stack of giant wine jars, the film pays homage to classic kung-fu films where actors perform their own stunts and wirework, delivering authenticity in bucketloads. The film is released in 3D in China, so some of the special effects look out of place but they aren’t overly distracting.
In terms of casting, Peng and Lau effectively play their roles and look at ease with the rigorous action sequences, while Koo hams up his role as Shaolun, so much so that it is on the verge of being overdramatic Notable supporting cast members include Yuan Quan, who plays Hak-nan’s wife, and martial artist Wu Jing as Cheung Yik, whose loyalty to Shaolun is tested when personal relationships complicate the situation.
Watching Call of Heroes is a throwback to my childhood – a melee of period drama and impressive fight scenes. After numerous lacklustre wuxia films, it is great to see a proper Chinese martial arts film.
DVD & Blu-ray – Special Features:
• Making of Featurettes
• Four Character Trailers
• International Trailer
• Artwork Gallery
Thanks for reading.