RAILWAY HEROES (2021) short review

Yang Feng’s directing debut Railway Heroes follows the resistance fighters of the Shandong Rail Corps, who relentlessly fought the Japanese invaders during the Second Sino-Japanese War, from 1937 to 1945. A team of railroad workers led by Hong (Zhang Hanyu) conducts sabotage operations against Japanese trains headed for the battlefront in East China, with station operator Wang (Fan Wei) as their source of intel. It’s a much more somber take on that time in history than Ding Sheng’s Jackie Chan vehicle Railroad Tigers in 2016, but not necessarily a more realistic one. Therein lies the film’s problem: it never chooses between being a rip-roaring, over-the-top semi-patriotic spectacle like Dante Lam’s Operation Mekong and Red Sea for example, or being a realistic, reverent historical account like, Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly. There’s merit in choosing the middle ground, but what results in a long simmer of a film. It’s beautiful to look at with its almost monochrome snowbound cinematography (courtesy of the director himself), never less than entertaining thanks to the unimpeachable charisma of Zhang Hanyu and Fan Wei in roles they know like the back of their hand (the rugged leader of men and the jovial yet wily bear, respectively), and it’s capped off by a stunning and bloody action scene across train cars, yet there’s fire missing in the belly of this steel beast. The supporting cast is largely unmemorable and barely fleshed out (either selfless Chinese fighters or smirking Japanese devils), and there’s neither enough action scenes to get the pulse racing, nor enough historical detail to educate. Thankfully, wide-eyed patriotism is confined to a single scene of resistance fighters being sworn into the Communist Party – amusingly, it might be the film’s most bombastic moments, with composer He Min’s fine score thundering away like the Avengers are landing in East China. ***