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During the warlords era in China, a village located in rural area called Pucheng fell into dangerous situation when its government allocated all its military force to the front line, the cruel commandant Cao from the enemy troops arrived the village and killed the innocent, the guardians of Pucheng were desperate to fight against Cao for justice and to protect their homeland.
Strong character drama and compelling performances make this refreshingly old-school martial-arts blockbuster of heroism amidst oppression gripping, poignant and resonant
With China's film industry in the throes of a CGI craze (think the most recent 'League of Gods'), it is almost refreshing to see a traditional martial arts blockbuster like 'Call of Heroes' that doesn't substitute the authenticity of real sets or props for computer-generated ones. That means the whip you see Lau Ching Wan crack on screen as the commander of a small group of guardians for the besieged city of Pucheng is every inch real, for which Lau went through a month of rigorous training to prepare for. It also means the city Pucheng where most of the action is set is also filmed against an actual set, which took its director Benny Chan almost five months to build. Even more comforting is the fact that Chan (who takes top screen writing credit here among four other co- writers) understands the importance of a good story and strong characters, and uses both to craft a compelling Western about justice and its enforcement.
Oh yes, lest it doesn't seem apparent from the grave expressions of its lead cast on the poster or its action-packed trailers, Chan has modelled his film firmly on the genre tropes of the classic Western. The opening scene establishes Eddie Peng's Ma Feng as the mysterious wanderer with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, awoken from his post-lunch stupor at a secluded diner by a stuttering bandit in the midst of robbing its owners as well as the other patrons. True enough, after the requisite character introduction to Lau's Sheriff Yang Kenan, Ma Feng rides into the town of Pucheng claiming to have no purpose other than follow wherever his horse (which he names 'Taiping' or 'world peace' in Chinese) takes him.
Though sequestered in a deep valley, Pucheng is under threat of invasion by a ruthless warlord Cao Ying, whose equally cold-blooded son General Cao Shaolun (Louis Koo) had mercilessly slaughtered the villagers where Miss Bai and her students had fled from and is preparing to repeat the deed. The army protecting their village has been called into battle with General Cao's men at the frontlines, leaving the security of Pucheng to Sheriff Yang and his band of guardians.
It is all but clear to Sheriff Yang that Shaolun – who rides into town alone at the crack of dawn and proceeds to kill three people in cold blood – intends to be caught, and is only playing on the minds of Pucheng's ordinary citizens as well as its law enforcement to see how far they would go to save their own skins. His general Zhang Yi (Wu Jing) interrupts his trial in open court to demand as much, with the ultimatum that he will lead their junior commandant Shaolun's army to invade the village and rescue him if he is not released by daybreak the very next morning.
To Sheriff Yang, the choice is clear – there can be no justice if it is not enforced – so threat or no threat, Shaolun will hang for his crimes. Yet after an attempted prison break led by two of General Zhang Yi's subordinates leaves two of Sheriff Yang's guardians dead, the villagers are left even more cowed by the threat of complete annihilation, turning up en masse to petition Sheriff Yang to release the prisoner in the hope of avoiding war. Therein lies Sheriff Yang's moral and professional dilemma as well as the movie's central theme – justice at what costs and to what extents – which is fleshed out poignantly thanks to Chan's compelling storytelling and his actor Lau's commanding multi-layered performance.
In the same vein, Ma Feng's choice will also be ethical – stay and defend Pucheng alongside Sheriff Yang or simply leave and let them fend by their own defences? Bearing in mind the titular call, it isn't hard to guess which Ma Feng eventually chooses, especially after we learn of his past with General Zhang Yi. That history also adds texture and depth to their one-on-one showdown at the end – more than just a battle of Eddie's twin swords and Wu Jing's spear, it is their 'brotherhood' which is also put to the test. That the clash between the two martial-arts trained actors bristles with ferocity and nail-biting tension is testament to Sammo Hung's action direction, which complements the robust character drama with four thrilling set- pieces.
As its title suggests, 'Call of Heroes' is a team effort where the whole is much bigger and better than the sum of its individual parts. Neither its story or the central theme is new, but Chan has fashioned a gripping period drama that reinforces the virtue of staying true to one's morals. As with his previous 'The White Storm', Chan's ensemble cast also deserves credit for the strength of their acting – and even Koo turns out a surprisingly inspired choice sneering and smarming as the heartless villain at the heart of the story. Like we said at the start, this is a refreshingly solid old-fashioned action-packed blockbuster that is also likely to be one of the best Chinese movies you'll see this year.
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