For now 20 years, Benny Chan (New Police Story) has been relentlessly producing and directing action thrillers, and in doing so, actively participating in maintaining Hong Kong’s legacy in the genre. If Chan’s movies do not benefit from the same hype than Donnie Yen’s movies with Western audience (for instance Ip Man or Flashpoint), they have the particularity of always being built around very strong stories emphasising on characters’ relationship, in addition to being extremely well crafted. Call of Heroes, despite not equalling some of his previous efforts (for instance The White Storm to cite only one of the very recent ones), is definitely in the same vein.
In 1914, after the collapse of China’s Qing dynasty, Yang Kenan (Lau Ching-wan, Mad Detective) is appointed as guardian to defend the rural village of Pucheng. When a lone man (Louis Koo, Election) enters the village and commits a crime, Yang makes a decision which impacts the whole village.
Chan, who started his movie career directing Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs) in A Moment of Romance and established his reputation as a solid action director throughout a prolific working relationship with Jacky Chan started with Who Am I?, is more renowned for his urban action thrillers which includes excellent movies like Heroic Duo, Divergence or Invisible Target. However, he already made a foray in the epic action genre in 2011 with Shaolin which saw Lau as a dispirited warlord turning to a Shaolin monastery, after a defeat, to seek salvation. This movie was inspired by the 1982 Jet Li movie The Shaolin Temple, directed by Chang Hsin-Yen. With Call of Heroes, he continues his exploration of the genre but this time with different references: Japanese Samurai cinema, especially the movies of Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) and Westerns, especially the movies of Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West).
This is quite clear when listening to Wong Kin-wai (Little Big Master)’s wonderful Westernian score and through the characters, especially the character played by Eddie Peng (Unbeatable) a clear reference to Toshiro Mifume’s characters in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro, which in turn inspired Leone for his Man with No Name character in A Fistfull of Dollars (a remake of the former), For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). Moreover, Chan has explained in interviews that, as preparation, he asked Peng to study these two Kurosawa movies to learn from Mifune’s portrayal of a free-spirited hero.
However, in this maelstrom of illustrious influences, the strength of the director is to still manage to retain aesthetics and ideologies typical of Hong Kong cinema, as this was already the case in Connected, his superior remake of David R. Ellis’ Cellular.
In particular, the moral dilemma at the core of Call of Heroes is the main strength of the movie. Without divulging too much about it, it does separate Chan’s movie from average epic action movies by giving extra layers of complexity to the story. This, in turns, nourishes the relationship between the characters, primarily between Ching-wan and Peng’s characters, but also noticeably between the former and Liu Kai-chi (SPL)’s character.
Another interesting aspect of Call of Heroes is the involvement of martial arts film legend Sammo Hung (Ip Man 2) as action director. However, if Hung twirling choreographies are still wonderfully impressive of inventiveness, they also tend to create a shifting feeling with the seriousness of the story, especially at the end of the movie. It is the first time that Chan and Hung have collaborated and it seems that the styles, and perhaps personalities of the two veteran directors (Hung is also the director of many Hong Kong action movies with Jacky Chan), did not perfectly merge.
Finally, worth noting are the performances of the four main actors. Despite most of them not being martial artists (the exception being Wu Jing (Fatal Contact), an accomplished Wushu martial artist), Ching-wan, Peng and Koo compensate what they lack in physical prowess with very fine acting. Although their characters could be seen as caricatures, especially Koo’s character, it is actually this aspect that strengthens the impact of the story.
Even if Call of Heroes does not constitute a turning point in Hong Kong’s action cinema, it is nonetheless a striking example of the talents still present in the ex-colony.
This blu-ray release of Call of Heroes sees the return of Cine Asia. The once prolific distributor of many recent Asian cinema classics, such as SPL, War of the Arrows or Ip Man, stopped releasing titles for some time but rises from the ashes with a strong edition of a recent box-office success in China. Call of Heroes is released on blu-ray disc on 2nd January.
The movie is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio in an impressive high definition 1080p transfer. Call of Heroes features a variety of interior and exterior backgrounds which are all beautifully rendered by the blu-ray disc, in particular the wide shots of the village from the mountains. The level of details is also excellent during close-ups and allows to appreciate all the nuances of the actors’ performances.
Call of Heroes is presented on blu-ray with two audio options both in Cantonese: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and Uncompressed Stereo LPCM. There are also removable English subtitles.
Both are very efficient audio tracks even if the first one provides a slightly better immersion into the movie. The dialogues are very clear and never overwhelmed by the music. I haven’t noticed any defects on the track.
Cine Asia has always been offering a good array of supplemental features in their releases. Although the blu-ray of Call of Heroes will not be regarded as their finest on this aspect, it contains interesting bonuses presented over two menu pages.
- Making Of: This is the main bonus of the blu-ray disc. It consists of several very brief featurettes focusing on several aspects of the creation of the movie (actors, fight choreographies, production design, etc.). This is all very promotional, and some of the featurettes are rather anecdotic (it’s also a shame that there is no ‘Play all’ option as watching all the featurettes is not a very enjoyable experience…) but it does give the opportunity to hear from the main contributors. Here’s the exhaustive list:
Building Pucheng: Creating the set (1:22)
Building Pucheng: The Restaurant (1:14)
Eddie’s Beard (1:11)
Wu Jing: Bringing the Action (1:22)
Wu Jing: Fight Scenes (1:36)
Wu Jing & Eddie Peng (1:38)
Eddie Peng: Fight Scenes (1:24)
Jiang Shu Ying: Character Insight (1:30)
Sammo Hung Gets a Lift (1:22)
Yuan Quan: Character Insight (1:22)
Sean Lau & Eddie Peng: Play Fighting (1:26)
Yuan Quan: Fight Scenes (1:29)
Yuan Quan: Horse Riding (1:32)
Louis Koo & Sammy Hung: Arm Wrestling (1:25)
Louis Koo: Character Insight (1:20)
Louis Koo: The Parrot (1:21)
Sean Lau: Using the Bullwhip 01 (1:21)
Sean Lau: Using the Bullwhip 02 (1:45)
Louis Koo: Suicide Scene (1:32)
Sean Lau: Bridge Scene (1:41)
Sean Lau: Water Torture Scene (1:43)
Sean Lau: Fight Scenes (1:52)
Sammo & Sammy Hung (1:53)
All the featurettes are presented in HD.
The disc also features the international trailer for the movie, individual trailers for Louis Koo, Lau Ching-wan, Eddie Peng and Wu Jing’s characters, and an artwork gallery.
A worthwhile piece of Hong Kong action cinema to celebrate the return of Cine Asia!