A common topic among bloggers this year has been exploring our blind spots from film history. While much of the chatter has focused on classics like Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane, it's also moved towards directing superstars from other countries. A prime example for me is the prolific Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, whose known for crime and action films. My only experience is seeing 2003's PTU, and that isn't one of his signature films. This marathon gave me the perfect opportunity to check out one of To's most acclaimed movies. Exiled has received nominations for a variety of awards, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. I figured it would provide good entertainment, but would there be enough to rise above the fray?
What's this story about?
Wo (Nick Cheung) is a former gangster who's trying to stay out of the fray with his wife Jin (Josie Ho) and their new baby. Boss Fay (Simon Yam) is still upset about Wo trying to kill him and wants revenge. He tasks Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet) with the hit, but it might not be so easy. When Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung) arrive to stop them, the entire group decides to take a different approach. The five killers grew up together and quickly reform that close bond. They decide to take a lucrative job to help Wo get away, but complications ensue when Boss Fay arrives in town. This leads to a series of violent shootouts and cat-and-mouse attempts to stay alive while grabbing a big score.
What are the key themes of this film?
Writers Kam-Yuen Szeto and Tin-Shing Yip focus on the bonds formed by men, even hired killers. They're willing to sacrifice their lives and wealth to honor commitments to a friend. Their goals contrast sharply with the venomous Boss Fay, who will cross anyone to prove his power. He enjoys inflicting pain and toying with anyone who he considers weak. Blaze, Tai, and the gang like being gun fighters and gaining money, but it isn't the only priority. There are plenty of chances for escape throughout the story, but they always wade back into the mess for honorable reasons. These themes are handled well by To, but it's mostly just an excuse to deliver incredible shoot-outs. These guys can do almost anything with their weapons and look cool while facing the danger. In the opening scene, they send a full-size door into a flip and act like it's just another day at the office. They rarely flinch at the sign of trouble and stroll into a conflict knowing they have few superiors.
These guys are thinly written, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. To relies on the actors' charisma to sell the characters and make us like them. I was ready to follow these guys anywhere after the opening scene. Anthony Wong just needs a few quick looks to convey all that we need to know about Blaze. He wants to do the right thing, but he's been around long enough to realize it will lead to unfortunate consequences. More volatile is Francis Ng's Tai, who wears his heart on his sleeve. He'll barge into any fight and doesn't worry about the outcome. Tai also has a snazzy haircut. It's easy to distinguish between the five gangsters because each has a different hairstyle. Nick Cheung isn't as exciting, but that fits with Wo's outlook. He doesn't have the same enjoyment as his buddies. Josie Ho makes a stronger impression as his wife Jin, who takes a larger role during the final act.
How extensive is the scenery chewing from the hoodlums?
The scenery-chewing champion of this movie (and the marathon) is Simon Yam as Boss Fay. He exudes anger and nastiness towards everyone. Fay refuses to admit that he isn't in control of every situation. He's the opposite of Blaze and doesn't follow any code. Yam's devilish grin reminds us that he doesn't walk into a meeting without a few cards to play. The closest we get from the "good guys" is Fat, who's as interested in prostitutes as their primary goals. Fat and Cat don't receive as much attention, but they round out the group nicely. Less successful is Shiu Hung Hui as Sergeant Shan, who represents the cops' ineptitude. They're just harmless bystanders observing the carnage from the sidelines.
Although the story flows nicely, Exiled shines during its three major action sequences. The opening shootout wastes little time in revealing To's stylized approach. While the guitar-driven score from Dave Klotz and Guy Zerafa blares in the background, the battle showcases a remarkable style. To places the motionless characters at interesting spots in the frame and prepares them for war. The most impressive scene is the gun fight in the middle of the movie that brings all the players together in one location. A stunning restaurant with a huge circular shape provides just the right spot for the exciting conflict. A fun character moment is the reveal of Sergeant Chen (Richie Ren), who is standing alone against a horde of guys. He's an excellent shot and shares Blaze's nonchalant approach to the fight. Ren has a small role but makes an impression in just a few scenes.
How’s the direction? Is there an original vision?
I'm not an expert on To's work, but it's clear he brings a unique style. It's your standard genre material, but his talents lift it beyond the formula. When you combine that skill with Siu-keung Cheng's striking cinematography, you have the makings for a very entertaining movie. It's not for all tastes, but I was blown away by the action. I try to avoid using generic superlatives, but I can't think of a better word to describe Exiled than simply calling it awesome. I guarantee that it won't be my last foray into To's career.
Next week, I'll head over to South Korea and check out Ha Yu's A Dirty Carnival.