The Reeler

Reviews

August 30, 2007

Exiled

The unstoppable Johnnie To's third 2007 release is also the most entertaining film of the year

The most entertaining movie released so far this year was made in Hong Kong in 2006. Exiled, Johnnie To’s effortlessly stylized gangster-western, is the third To film to reach the U.S. in 2007. Election (2005) and Triad Election (2006) were bloody allegories about China’s encroaching influence on the HK underworld, while Exiled draws from from Peckinpah and Leone (it’s also a takeoff on To‘s own 2000 film, The Mission). A Wild Bunch riff in love with the pure, plastic beauties of the medium, Exiled is also a glistening showpiece of sinuous tracking shots, fetishistic slow motion, and a ritualistic sense of gun-play.

The story is pure pulp: Wo (Nick Cheung), returns to Macao in 1998 (its last year under Portuguese rule) after a failed assassination attempt on chatty crime kingpin Boss Fay (Simon Yam). A price remains on his head. Two of Wo’s childhood friends descend upon his home: Blaze (the brilliantly stone-faced Anthony Wong), still under Fay’s employ, arrives to kill Wo, while Tai (Francis Ng) tries to save him; all of the parties pose in various landscapes and shoot at each other.

What distinguishes To’s work from that generated by modern Hollywood is the ease with which his beautiful compositions (here the emphasis is on flowing fabrics, slowed down until they pirouette around our nimble-footed gunmen) also reveal the relationships between characters. The opening sequence sets up the film's main conflict via a series of graceful, bird’s eye view shots, as Blaze and Tai stare each other down in the lot adjacent to Wo’s apartment. When Tai tosses Blaze a stogie, it reveals as much about their enigmatic bond as John Wayne handing Dean Martin a cig in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. Every part of the frame holds some narrative significance, from the used can on the dusty street to the coin in Blaze‘s lackey‘s pocket. To orchestrates these props as agents to propel the story forward, revelatory cogs in a well-oiled tension and release machine.

In the midst of Exiled’s slick narrative flow, To and his long-time collaborators (cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung, editor David Richardson and screenwriters Szeto Kam-yuen and Yip Tin-shing) inject a series of comic lines that further illustrate the eventual unity of this group of friends, from the repeated breakdown of their decrepit cars to a choreographed recoiling from a nasty case of halitosis. The gang’s hypermasculinity is continually undercut by these humiliating scenarios, as if a Hawksian group has been tossed into Peckinpah’s violently macho universe.

The two previous Election films end with scenes of physical and emotional violence that express the deterioration of Hong Kong’s traditional moral codes. The final, bloody battle in Exiled, on the other hand, is as much comedy as tragedy, ending on a punch line punctuated by the aluminum can that was introduced in the opening scene. These are cocksure heroes that are pure cinematic creations, swaggering good guys who would give up a fortune rather than sell out their virtues. They are To’s fantasy of Hong Kong masculinity, the glittering, anti-heroes answer to the soulless shells that populate the Election films. Above and beyond To's message about China's influence over Macao and Hong Kong, however, Exiled is about form and structure. And it’s damn near perfect on both counts.

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