Call Of Heroes (Ngai sing)
Hong Kong (2016) Dir. Benny Chan
With the likes of Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais propagating more realistic, gimmick free fights in martial arts cinema, Hong Kong remains loyal to its famous wire fu style which may make them seem a little corny in comparison. What cannot be denied, however, is that they still produce historical epics like no other.
Set during China’s Warlord era following the end of the Qing Dynasty, the story bears a resemblance to the classic western Rio Bravo. Stone City has been seized by warlord Cao Ying, raping and pillaging on a whim. A schoolteacher Bai Ling (Jiang Shuying) takes her class of young kids and flees to the nearby village of Pucheng, which, in the absence of the governor, is under the authority of Sheriff Yang Kenan (Sean Lau).
One night a stranger (Louis Koo) arrives at the noodle shop of Bai Ling’s cousin Tieniu (Philip Keung) and coldly murders Bai Ling, Tieniu and a young boy. He is captured and due to be executed but before Yang can give the order, Cao army general Zhang Yi (Wu Jing) arrives, revealing the murderer to be Cao’s son Shaolun. Yi tells Yang that he must release Shaolun or his army will kill everyone in Pucheng.
I’ve not seen Rio Bravo so I can’t make any comparisons but the similarities of the plot have arisen in other reviews of this film, originally titled The Deadly Reclaim, so there is no reason to dispute them. However, I can say there is also a touch of High Noon in there too, with the villagers trying to persuade Yang to release Shaolun for fear of dying.
A perfectly reasonable concern but Yang is also rightfully insistent that murderers must be punished regardless of who they are, which provides us with a familiar central dilemma – is it worth endangering the lives of many for the sake of justice for the lives of just three? Not that their deaths weren’t met with anger and sadness but Yang and his deputies are no match for an imperial army wielding guns.
But this is a martial arts film so battles in which one man is unfairly outnumbered yet still prevails is par for the course and director Benny Chan is in no hurry to buck this trend. The opening sequence in fact, in which hirsute vagrant Ma Feng (Eddie Peng) foils a robbery in a restaurant by kicking all kinds of backside without breaking a sweat.
Ma Feng becomes an important character later on, arriving in Pucheng in time to witness the situation with Shaolun. Bai Ling, who was in the aforementioned restaurant with the kids, wrote a letter asking Feng to take the kids to the capital for their safety. In the wake of her death, Feng accepts this as his duty having decided he doesn’t want to get involved in Pucheng business.
Anyone familiar with the Shaw Brothers classic output will recognise where this film is a throwback to their straightforward method of good vs. evil storytelling with an obvious moral centre. The presentation and production values may be modern but story wise this could have been a Chang Cheh film from 45 years ago, and no, that isn’t a complaint or a cause for concern.
Reportedly, Shaolun’s shameless arrogance is a reference to a real life incident in China a few years back when the son of a prominent party leader ran over two girls then dared the police to arrest him because of who his father was. Shaolun is equally aware of the clout his surname has and enjoys pushes Yang’s buttons, even exacerbating the impending fate of the village with a failed suicide attempt.
That Yang remains so defiant and resolute to his principals, both professionally and personally, is seen as wilful disobedience by General Yi, highly amusing to Shaolun yet dangerous and small minded by many of the villagers. Benny Chan and his four co-scriptwriters successfully get plenty of mileage from this dilemma but never over egg it with didactic discussion or extraneous plot contrivances.
With this aspect delineated through the behaviour of the main characters, development is afforded for some of the supporting cast, notably General Yi and Ma Feng whose divergent past is explored via flashback, revealing the cause of Feng’s drifter status. Meanwhile Yang has his own family to protect, including a young daughter, while his wife Zhou Susu (Yolanda Yuan) is a perfectly competent fighter of her own accord.
Action choreography is handled by the legendary Sammo Hung, who not only has a small cameo, but his son, Sammy Hung, plays one of Yang’s deputies. If we can ignore the CGI, excessive wire work and pandering to the 3D gimmick (which is still popular in China), there are plenty of top notch fights to enjoy here, ranging from mono et mono clashes to multi-man punch ups, delivered with vigour and gleeful bloody violence.
Most fights are largely weapon-based affairs, offering a healthy variety of blades, chains, staffs and even the lid of a wicker basket. Yang is a master of the whip putting Indiana Jones to shame, while Shaolun hides behind his golden gun. The often-ludicrous excesses of the wirework and CGI can be distracting but the energy, skill and commitment of the cast, along with Hung’s planning makes these fights as exciting as possible.
The casting is also inspired for including genuine fighters like Wu Jing, the acting chops of Shaun Lau, the star attraction of Louis Koo (hamming it up like nobody’s business) and current favourite Eddie Peng, to create an all round enjoyable experience in which all tastes are catered for.
For all the throwbacks to the Shaw Brothers, westerns and even Samurai films, Call Of Heroes has too much going for it to be viewed as a simple homage. Maybe not a modern classic but certainly a great example of how the historical martial arts film still has a place in today’s world.