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Review: Call of Heroes

Call of Heroes

危城

China/Hong Kong, 2016, colour/b&w, 2.35:1, 3-D, 118 mins.

Director: Chen Musheng 陈木胜 [Benny Chan].

Rating: 8/10.

A retro-ey riff on classic period action films, with a strong cast and above-average writing.

STORY

Somewhere in southern China, 1914. The country is in chaos, with rival warlords and armies vying for power following the fall of the Qing dynasty three years ago. Following the sack of Stone Town by Cao Shaolin (Gu Tianle), the amoral, sadistic son of powerful warlord Cao Ying, teacher Bai Ling (Jiang Shuying) has managed to escape with some pupils from her nursery school. At a roadside inn, some robbers try to hold up the customers but are beaten off by a lone warrior, Ma Feng (Peng Yuyan), who then rides off, oblivious to Bai Ling’s thanks. In Pu town, Yang Kenan (Liu Qingyun), head of the Pu Town Defence Group, tells his men that they’ll have to fend for themselves until the Southern Army arrives. A large group of refugees arrives from Stone Town, among them Bai Ling and her pupils; she’s recognised by her cousin, Li Tieniu (Jiang Haowen), who takes her in and introduces her to Yang Kenan and his family. Next to arrive are some bandits led by Wang Weihu (Shi Yanneng) and then Ma Feng, asleep on his horse as usual. Bai Ling asks Ma Feng to take her pupils on to the capital; he pretends to be uninterested in doing her a favour, but she sees through his bravado. Early the next morning Cao Shaolin enters the town incognito in civilian dress and ends up shooting dead a restaurateur, Bai Ling and one of her pupils. He’s arrested and sentenced to be hanged; but then his subordinate, Zhang Yi (Wu Jing), arrives with soldiers and demands his release. The principled Yang Kenan refuses; Zhang Yi gives him 24 hours to reconsider, otherwise he’ll massacre the town. That night, an attempt by some of Zhang Yi’s men to free Cao Shaolin fails, as does a subsequent attempt by Cao Shaolin to hang himself. Despite growing pressure from the townpeople to let him go, Yang Kenan is determined that Cao Shaolin will hang, according to the law. Ma Feng secretly visits Zhang Yi, with whom he used to serve in the army when they were sworn brothers, but can’t get him to change his mind. And Cao Shaolin continues with his sadistic game, more interested in having the townspeople massacred than saving his own skin.

REVIEW

Call of Heroes 危城 is the most roundly satisfying film by Hong Kong director Chen Musheng 陈木胜 [Benny Chan] in two decades – since, in fact, Big Bullet 冲锋队怒火街头 (1996), which also starred Liu Qingyun 刘青云 [Lau Ching-wan] in one of his best roles before his film career took off under the Milkyway umbrella. A superior action journeyman, Chen, 55, generally provides solid popcorn entertainment, often on a large scale, but rarely pushes the Hong Kong envelope. His last movie, drug-busting action drama The White Storm 扫毒 (2013), played with the idea of moral quandaries vs. personal friendships but finally settled for routine formulae. Call raises the bar considerably, centred like Big Bullet on the conflict between rules and when one has to break them but taking things to another level, as a town’s principled leader has to decide between letting a killer go free or sacrificing the lives of the people in the cause of justice.

A slow starter, Call is that rare thing in Hong Kong cinema – a film that stays on track and doesn’t blow everything in the final act. Strongly cast – apart from one leading role – and intelligently written within genre limits, it also throws in the bonus of being a clever retro tribute to Shaw Brothers movies of the 1970s, a stylistic swerve for Chan that works surprisingly well and also fits in with the script’s stress on moral/ethical dilemmas. Though it’s set in the chaotic days of the Early Republic, Call has the feel of a classic Shaws swordplay movie in early 20th-century dress.

The opening, set at a roadside inn where an eccentric hero fights off some bandits and then rides off, sets the retro-ey tone. Switch to Pu town, where refugees are arriving en masse after some slaughter by a warlord in another town, and the film’s central character is introduced: the righteous Yang Ke’nan (Liu), who’s in charge of the town’s security and has to make do until the Southern Army comes. As other misfits arrive, the stage looks set for some kind of Seven Samurai riff; but then the script – by five writers, including Chen – goes in another direction. The psychotic warlord Cao Shaolin walks in incognito, kills three people and is sentenced by Yang Ke’nan to hang, according to the law. When Cao Shaolin’s subordinate threatens to massacre the town unless he’s released the next day, Yang Ke’nan comes under pressure to relax his principles.

Call is no art movie, but the dialogue is way above average and gives the film’s central idea a good workout. Perfectly cast, Liu anchors proceedings with his portrait of a man torn between justice and expediency, and, as the maniacal villain who simply likes killing people with his golden gun, Gu Tianle 古天乐 [Louis Koo] is equally well cast, cackling like a classic amoral Shaws villain and playing winner-takes-all games with people’s principles. Supporting roles are strong down the line, from the equally principled warlord of Mainland martial artist Wu Jing 吴京 to the craven hangman of Hong Kong character actor Liao Qizhi 廖启智 [Liu Kai-chi]. The one egregious piece of miscasting is Taiwan’s Peng Yuyan 彭于晏 [Eddie Peng] as a lone hero with a good heart under all his braggadocio: the boyish Peng simply lacks the stature for such a hearty/comic role, and looks ridiculous in false whiskers.

Chen’s films have never been notable for their female roles, and China’s Yuan Quan 袁泉, as Yang Ke’nan’s wife, and Jiang Shuying 江疏影, as a teacher who’s rescued her pupils, don’t have much to do in such a male universe. Hong Kong d.p. Chen Chuqiang 陈楚强, replacing Chen’s regular Pan Yaoming 潘耀明 [Anthony Pun], cleverly replicates a 1970s look (apart from all those zooms) while including more close-up work in the action sequences to satisfy modern audience’s needs. Editing by regular Qiu Zhiwei 邱志伟 [Yau Chi-wai] gives no hint this time of masses of material being left on the cutting-room floor, and the score by Wang Jianwei 王建威, after some unearthly piano music for the psycho villain, obligingly slips into Ennio Morricone mode (trumpets, choir) for the stirring final act as the leads face off and the townspeople rise up. Throughout, the action supervised by veteran Hong Jinbao 洪金宝 [Sammo Hung] is solid without being memorable.

The majority Mainland-funded film was shot around Shaoxing, Zhejiang province – where the wine comes from – and makes good use of the extensive set for the town. At only a so-so RMB167 million, the film’s Mainland box office was down on Chen’s two previous outings, The White Storm (RMB238 million) and Shaolin 新少林寺 (2011; RMB212 million), though up on City under Siege 全城戒备 (2010; RMB90 million). The Chinese title means “Dangerous Town”.

CREDITS

Presented by Bona Film Group (CN), Universe Entertainment (HK), iQiyi Motion Pictures (CN), Sun Entertainment Culture (HK), Yingming Culture Communication (CN), Long Motion Pictures (CN), Alpha Pictures (Beijing) (CN), CL Motion Pictures (CN), Beijing Monster Pictures (CN), Zhejiang Viewguide Film (CN), The One Media Group (HK). Produced by Bona Film Group (CN), Universe Entertainment (HK), iQiyi Motion Pictures (CN), Sun Entertainment Culture (HK), Yingming Culture Communication (CN), Long Motion Pictures (CN), Alpha Pictures (Beijing) (CN), CL Motion Pictures (CN), Beijing Monster Pictures (CN), Zhejiang Viewguide Film (CN), The One Media Group (HK).

Script: Chen Musheng [Benny Chan], Wang Dao, Tan Huizhen, Tang Yaoliang, Jian Yijue. Script advice: Chen Qiaoying. Photography: Chen Chuqiang. Editing: Qiu Zhiwei [Yau Chi-wai]. Music: Wang Jianwei. Theme song: Su Jianxin [Shin]. Production design: Liu Minxiong [Ben Lau]. Art direction: Zhou Shihong, Liang Shiyu. Costume design: Chen Jiayi. Sound: Zeng Jingxiang [Kinson Tsang], Li Yaoqiang, Yao Junxuan, Li Zhixiong. Action direction: Hong Jinbao [Sammo Hung]. Action choreography: Wei Yuhai, Guo Yong, Shi Zhanbiao, Zhang Guibo, Song Shuxin. Visual effects: Luo Weihao, Liang Zhanfeng (Different Digital Design). 3-D: Huang Hongda (VFX Nova).

Cast: Liu Qingyun [Lai Ching-wan] (Yang Kenan), Gu Tianle [Louis Koo] (Cao Shaolin), Peng Yuyan [Eddie Peng] (Ma Feng), Yuan Quan (Zhou Susu, Yang Kenan’s wife), Jiang Shuying (Bai Ling, teacher), Liao Qizhi [Liu Kai-chi] (Liao Jiachang), Shi Yanneng (Wang Weihu, bandit leader), Wu Tingye (Shen Ding), Hong Tianzhao (Zhang Wu), Jiang Haowen [Philip Keung] (Li Tieniu, Bai Ling’s cousin), Wu Jing (Zhang Yi), Sun Jiaolong (Lei Yue), Li Jing (one-armed man), Ma Zhiwei (Xu Shun), Luo Haoming (Xu Lin, Xu Shun elder brother), Zhang Junjie (Yan Xiaoguang), Zhou Tianbao (Lei Jiabao), Wang Yu (Miao Jiaoyi), Zhang Hao (Li Hairui), Wang Bo (Chen Zhuangran), Ni Li Telong (Lin Xinglong), Liu Jiayi (Yang Xiang), Xie Ning (Liu Cheng, big boss), Xiao Songyuan (Wang Gang), Hong Jinbao [Sammo Hung] (head of relief troops at end).

Release: China, 12 Aug 2016; Hong Kong, 18 Aug 2016.