Hong Kong Legends was a beacon for fans of martial arts cinema, even though they focused on Golden Harvest and overlooked the Shaw Brothers, their early DVD exploits provided ample chance for us fans to see films that we wouldn’t have otherwise. With their unfortunate demise, Cine Asia rose to prominence only they focused on the modern fair with the occasional look at the Shaw Brothers. And as if following a predetermined script, they too became consigned to the history books. After those two brands demise, the Western martial arts fan was only really served by the occasional Donnie Yen film or an auteurist star-vehicle like SPL 2 (Kill Zone 2). To the surprise of almost everyone, 2017 marks the return of one of those long lost labels – welcome back, Cine Asia. That first Phoenix from the flames is 2016’s Call of Heroes from genre mainstay Benny Chan.
In the small rural town of Pucheng, we find Guardian Yeung (Ching Wan Lau), an authority figure beloved by his team (including Sammo Hung’s son, Tin Chiu-Hung (billed as Sammy Hung)) and the townsfolk. The relative peace of his town is destroyed with a procession of arrivals. First is teacher Pak Ling (Jiang Shuying) accompanied by a group of young children that she has helped escape sure death at the hand of a rampaging warlords son. Following her is the vagabond Ma Fung (Eddie Peng), who only arrives in town as that is where his horse walked to. The final and most dramatic arrival is Cao Sui-Lun (Louis Koo), the aforementioned warlord’s son with no rhyme or reason and decides to kill three people simply as he enjoys killing.
The martial arts film has never been an easy genre to effectively synopsise and call of heroes sure doesn’t shirk that history. Now that all the players are in town the plot unfolds with all the time-honoured narrative messiness. Guardian Yeung respects justice and wants to execute the wayward Cao, even with the military might (fronted by Wing Ju) that could squash his town and murder everyone in it if even a hair on his head is damaged. Ma Fung also has history with Cao’s retainer, Cheung Yik (Wing Ju). At the epicenter of all of this is the moral conundrum posed by the head guardian, does he respect justice and the lives of those murdered people even though enacting that justice will surely lead to the doom of his family, friends and everything he knows? The benefit of having a cast of respected actors besides the martial artists is that the dramatic weight is suitably balanced and not a vacuous motivation for the climactic battle. That may well be the case, ignoring how inaccessible this type of narrative is to the uninitiated, the only real story issue is the slight plot holes and the mass plea the townspeople level mere hours before the military might returns.
If ever a narrative could be included as part of the current wave of bleak martial arts cinema, that is it. However, the reality of the film is a little less cut and dry. Chan has positioned this film as an Eastern Western, or a martial arts film that borrows from the iconography and sound design of the Western. It’s as successful as it could be given that these two states are contradictory in many a way, however, serendipity has offered up something a little more interesting.
Call of Heroes shares a great deal in common with Kim Jee-Woon’s gonzo western the good, the bad, the weird – even if it’s only comparable, returning or visiting such a cosmopolitan historic location is reason enough to be excited. Like that beloved Korean film, this village never succumbs to the sound stage. Look at a lot of the old Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest films and they all had that air of artificial due to them taking place in sound stages and indoor sets. The freedom from avoiding that will always set such an ambitiously historic film up for a win.
As the film starts and we are introduced to all the players, there is an undeniable knockabout tone. Eddie Peng’s Ma Fung beats down a group of bandits just because they woke him and food cramps are uncomfortable, what follows has a wire-aided cartoon slapstick to it. Nothing wrong with that, when Cine Asia was around during its first run it released Dragon Tiger Gate that got a great deal of mileage out of the very same style.
However, Louis Koo’s Cao throws a spanner in that theory. His is a character of such violence and chaos, that he openly shoots children dead with his golden pistol and he also shoots a woman in the face. And he doesn’t stop there, everything is a game to him – he strings the entire episode on as long as possible to satisfy his desire for fun. An entirely despicable character whose character arc and motivation is not too dissimilar to the antagonist of Miike’s 13 Assassins, as simple as he is, he works merely on the premise that Louis Koo revels in his performance. Our hero and his foil, Ching Wan Lau, is his true opposite as a morally upright and decent guardian.
As fellow actors and comic book characters alike have stated, bad guys have all the fun. In keeping with that, the build up and the finale is as triumphant as that good guy vs bad guy conflict gets. It’s one of these films that will tattoo a smile on your face, even if it gets there by cliched means. Not all of those means are by martial arts either, Call of Heroes does the few versus many in a way that has more in common with classic Ealing film Went the day well (?). Outright martial arts scuffles are as fun and chaotic thanks to the masterful choreography of the living legend Sammo Hung’s action team. The only sour note with the eventual face-off between Wing Ju and Eddie Peng is the incongruous use of CG that has all the subtlety of films designed for 3D. It doesn’t detract from the rollicking action. but to end on such a distracting note is saddening.
There may be problems, plot holes and it might also end with a duo of bad graphics and an inharmonious metal song over the credits. Yet, long term fans will be long used to the fact that these films are far from perfect. Instead, they are thrilling, characterful films full of adrenaline pitched action, and that is exactly what Benny Chan’s Call of Heroes is with the healthy extra in its flamboyance and style. All that is left to be said is this – welcome back Cine Asia, its great to have you back.