Call Of Heroes

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Call Of Heroes
"Numerous shots reflect Kurosawa's work, but Chan is no mere imitator, and has a real gift for this type of imagery."

In recent years, the Chinese government has expressed its dissatisfaction with the amount of nationally produced films focusing on fantasy, and has called for better depictions of the country's actual history. Setting his story in the Warlords Era in the early 20th Century, Benny Chan has answered that call. The result, ironically, has not been a big hit in China itself, but action-packed as it is, and beautiful to look at, it may well prove a success elsewhere.

The story concerns Pucheng, a small city (arguably more of a village) left vulnerable to a local warlord after the national army withdraws its troops to the front line. That warlord, the feared Cao Ling, has already routed the nearby Stone City, killing some of is inhabitants and forcing others to flee to Pucheng. Along the way, a small group of these refugees meets a drifter (Eddie Peng) whom the children call Monkey King and who introduces himself as Feng Ma - a mulberry bush of a name which itself implies what he later confesses: that he's carried around, directionless, by his horse Taipeng. For all his eccentricity, however, he's handy in a fight, and the refugees beg him to help them further. But the drifter has demons in his past and is not yet sure of his moral direction. As it emerges that he once served the same master as Cao's commander, the pragmatic yet steely Zhang Yi (Jacky Wu Jing), we are left to wonder what course he will take and how it will impact the fate of others.

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The most straightforward hero in the film is Yang Kenan (Sean Lau Ching-wan), Pucheng's sheriff, who, upon catching Cao's son Shaolin (Louis Koo) at the scene of a bloody murder, refuses to hand over his prisoner, and thereby incurs the warlord's wrath. As his own people plead with him to change his mind, Yang is torn between two different duties, and tries to warn them that Cao may well have them all killed regardless of what they do. What follows is a story that mingles philosophy with frenetic action, personal drama with epic confrontation. Meanwhile, another hero emerges in the background - Yang's wife (Yuan Quan), who can fight as fiercely as any of the men and who is, in turn, raising their little girl to be "a brave and heroic person."

Despite ts focus on Chinee history, Chan's work owes much of its style to Japan - in particular, to Akira Kurosawa, and to the westerns that were his inspiration. An early scene in which the drifter stumbles into town to have his beard trimmed by Yang is direct homage to the likes of High Plains Drifter. Numerous shots reflect Kurosawa's work, but Chan is no mere imitator, and has a real gift for this type of imagery. The elegance he brings to the film (much aided by Ben Lau's impressive set deign) helps to give it weight and balance out its more cartoonish side. Similarly, making room for Lau to do his oft-acclaimed thing as an actor assures s that there's more going on here than in the average martial arts flick.

When they come, though, those martial arts are impressive. Chan is a visceral director and what we see here is more bone-crunchingly vivid that in many fighting films, though it never becomes unrealistic. If there's one thing to complain about, it's that sometimes the fast cutting, together with the sheer number of people fighting at once in some scene, makes it hard to keep track of what's happening in individual showdowns; but in other places, notably a stand-out sequence in which the drifter takes on Zhang atop a mountain of stone jars, the fighting is pure poetry. What's more, the film delivers plenty of it, and spreads it out in such a way that there's no danger of viewers getting bored.

For all that he's packed in a lot of clich├ęs, Chan has delivered a film that is consistently entertaining and will leave Western audiences, at least, looking forward to seeng what he does next.

Reviewed on: 31 Dec 2016
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A small city is threatened by a warlord.
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Director: Benny Chan

Writer: Benny Chan

Starring: Louis Koo, Ching Wan Lau, Eddie Peng, Jing Wu

Year: 2016

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Hong Kong

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