As stylish as it is brutal, Benny Chan and Sammo Hung’s often masterly Cantonese film Call of Heroes is as evocative of classic American Westerns as Chinese martial arts films. Set in 1914 in Pucheng, provincial China, a civil war rages, where the government is ineffective and a whole village is literally on its knees, at the mercy of the evil warlords (Louis Koo’s Commandant Cao, pictured below, is a particularly sadistic, if somewhat one-note figure). It is jaw-droppingly violent, yet tender, and full of dark humour at the most unexpected intervals.
Innocents are often the first casualties of war, and there is no skimping on the gore from the Cao army, who kill seemingly at random.That the teacher at the start of the film, Miss Bai Ling (Zhang Shuying) who provides a strong sense of moral decency, gets murdered early on is nothing short of devastating. Leading her orphaned school children to seek refuge, she is nonetheless killed outright alongside a small boy.
Running counter to this, Sheriff Yang (an imperious, focused Sean Lau) just wants to live in peace with his family. And so begins the revolt. Ropes uncoil like snakes, men and women locked in combat appear airborne at times, and the whole film doesn’t have a wasted scene in it. It looks incredible, almost painterly.
It is as a character-based story that the film excels, however. Sleepy anti-hero Ma Feng (a superb Eddie Peng) is half sloth, half lion- either sleeping, eating, or ready to pounce. He provides some of the wit , with sharp one-liners, narcissism and moments like asking kids to give his adversaries a good spanking on his behalf, or falling off a horse.It is his capricious nature as a character that brings moral ambiguity. Sometimes, after all, you snooze, you don’t always lose.
What should be a conventional story of a village seeking vengeance is elevated by superb twists, characters to root for and an even pacing which renders the whole experience utterly compelling.
Images from Cine Asia
Released on DVD, January 2nd, 2017 via Cine Asia.