Fantasia Report: Exiled Review
While I hesitate to label Johnnie To's Exiled -- available on DVD here -- a masterpiece I do so only because it is playing in this festival opposite his Election films, films which surpass this one in terms of social criticism, both of which clearly merit that label themselves. Suffice it to say that To is on a hot streak right now. A very, very hot streak.
Bearing all the marks of a film created as raw entertainment to cleanse the palette after the grim ride of the back to back Election features, Exiled is the much rumored quasi-sequel to The Mission. And let's clear those rumors up right now. While it shares a cast and a similar tone with The Mission the cast here are playing entirely different characters, so Mission-reunion yes, but Mission sequel no.
The film opens with a fist pounding on a door, opened by a run down woman with a baby squalling in the background. "Does Wo live here?" "There's no such person," she replies, clearly lying, and the pair of searchers, ominously well dressed for such a run down neighborhood, move off to a nearby square to wait. Two minutes later and the exact same scenario is played out again with a new pair of searching eyes at the door. They also move to the square to wait and it soons becomes clear that our two pairs are old friends, albeit friends now found on opposite sides. Though now marked by split loyalties the four hitmen are all childhood friends of Wo, himself an exiled gangster now unwisely returned to Macau on the eve of its return to Chinese control. Realizing the danger their friend is in, the first pair has come to protect him. Ordered by their boss to do so, the second pair has come to kill him.
Where to even begin with what Exiled does well? Let's start with To himself. The film is simply gorgeous to look at, the cinematography just stunning capturing a seemingly endless stream of iconic images. While it is tempting to label it a simple triad-action film To has much larger designs than that, filling the film with an unusual grace and beauty, a playful sense of humor, and a concern for his characters that runs well beyond when they've got their guns in their hands with his approach to story strongly reminiscent of Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine at times, albeit a much prettier, much more violent Sonatine.
Move on to the action. To has a loyal following among Hong Kong action fans for very good reason, he is simply one of the most technically accomplished film makers working in Hong Kong today. You may well think you've seen every possible gunplay option Hong Kong has to offer. To proves you wrong. He does it early, he does it often. There are shots in this film that will leave your jaw on the floor for their sheer inventiveness and style.
Move to the script. When To falters it is most often a lack of attention to his characters that brings him down. This is not even remotely a problem here. His characters are rich and unique, the motivations run deep, the plot line clever and engaging while never losing site of the people that drive it. While the film appears to stray from the main thread in the middle going you soon realize that what To is doing is fleshing out his characters as full blooded people and when he easily and masterfully pulls his players back to the main story line it gives the ending that final wallop.
And finally, the cast. Francis Ng. Simon Yam. Lam Suet. Anthony Wong. Nick Cheung. Not only has To assembled the hardest of the Hong Kong hard men for his gangster drama, but every one of them is also a very fine actor in his own right. Upping the ante further is the simple fact that To and his crew have worked with these same actors repeatedly over the years, many of them appearing in several To helmed films together, which gives them the natural, easy rapport that elevates the proceedings so far above the norm. Smart and crackling with energy though it may be Exiled feels like nothing so much as a group of old friends getting together to play and having a simply fantastic time while doing it.
Don't mistake the praise here. Exiled is not a serious film in the way Election is a serious film. This is not To making a statement. This is To in full on entertainment mode and he succeeds mightily in that regard. Just a little over a year ago I was well prepared to write To off after a string of films that simply failed to engage whatsoever. But between the Election films and now Exiled one thing is very clear: Johnnie To is simply the most vital, muscular figure in Hong Kong cinema today and he deserves comparison to the all time greats.