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Johnny To has returned with yet another HK gangland movie following his
Election movies, and with the casting of the usual suspects in lead
roles, it might, to some, become quite tiresome after a while. Not that
the actors are bad in their roles, but perhaps with too much
familiarity too soon, it may become difficult to tell one apart from
the other, or at least character wise.
Nick Cheung plays Wo, a man exiled for his misdeed against Boss Fay (Simon Yam), and who has returned and settled down in Macau with is wife (Josie Ho) and infant child. Sent to finish Wo off is Anthony Wong's Blaze, and Fat (Suet Lam). However, standing in their way is Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung), who will not let their buddy go down without a fight. In truth, all of them were buddies once, and having some sent on a mission to finish off another, this broke down their relationship, becoming a decision of forsaking personal friendship for the call of duty.
And it is precisely the themes of brotherhood, loyalty and honour that make this film a worthwhile watch, despite its clichés in characters and familiar actors taking on the roles. You can probably think of no better other. Would you defy orders and give up your mission, thus transforming from hunter to prey, or would you seek a compromise in order to save your own skin? Triad life is always black and white - if you're not with somebody, then you're against him. Told in two distinct acts, it's almost like watching a Japanese "ronin" movie, given how the storyline developed, and the issues and dilemma faced by our merry men.
The film is quite 80-ish in presentation and storyline, and filled with plenty of beautifully choreographed poetic violence and gunplay, reminiscent of how John Woo would do his, but minus the doves and nursery rhymes and music. There are enough tension filled moments with its numerous Mexican standoffs, which to me are the highlights of the movie. The excellent stringed soundtrack playing in the background building tension during the calm moments, before erupting into a free-for-all, all-man-for-himself, who-shot-first pumping of lead into the air, keeping you guessing who will emerge unscathed. The pace is deliberately slow most times, in order to build up to the chaotic crescendos of blazing guns. And to some it might be a tad frustrating with many "poser" moments where the ensemble cast stand around, shades on, with a gun in one hand and a cigarette in the other, for good measure. They make good posters, but to the impatient, they'll scream to have things move on.
There are plenty of supporting characters like Cheung Siu-Fai as a middleman broker, Gordon Lam as an upcoming gangland boss, and Ritchie Ren's take as a sharpshooting cop. Again their familiar faces lend some weight to their roles, it doesn't add more depth as compared to the leads. Simon Yam is again the crazed and charismatic leader of the mob, with Francis Ng taking on a more subdued role together with Anthony Wong, who actually had the best role amongst the offering as the man faced with the colossal task of deciding where his loyalties lie.
Unlike Election with its political undertones, Exiled in my opinion steered quite clear and is what it is, a good old fashioned HK triad picture with heavy focus on friendship and brotherhood. Perhaps the only observatory comment made is the ineffectiveness of the police, more due to cowardice rather than corruption.
I saw this film at the Toronto International Film Festival. Among
lovers of Hong Kong cinema, Johnnie To is legendary. He had three films
showing in this year's festival (Election (2005) and Election 2 (2006)
screened together, as well as this film) and this was my first
experience seeing one of his films. I'll be seeking out some others.
Exiled is an incredibly well- constructed film. It's like a Swiss
watch, with every scene precisely set up and choreographed and nothing
wasted. To has created a self-contained world and set his characters
loose in it. Set just around the time of Macau's reversion to the
Chinese government, it concerns a group of hit men who come together
when their boss orders a hit on one of them. Two pairs of men arrive at
the target's new home. The first to warn him, the second to kill him.
After a kinetic set piece involving three shooters, precisely 18
bullets, and the target's wife and infant son, the group ends up
helping still-alive Wo move furniture into his new place, before
settling down to eat.
The mixture of action, comedy, and sentiment is probably a staple of Hong Kong gangster films, but I found it fresh. The plot continues when the assassins agree to give Wo some time to carry out one last job to make some cash for his soon to be widowed wife and orphaned child. Things don't go as planned, however, and the film bumps along from set piece to set piece until an inevitable but satisfying end. Each choreographed set piece is set up in such a way as to heighten the anticipation, and you almost don't mind that none of these trained killers seems to be a very good shot. It's enough that they're all ludicrously macho, swilling scotch from the bottle and smoking as they fire bullets at each other.
Seeing this one on the big screen is a must, just for the sound. The musical score, by Canadian Guy Zerafa, veered between James Bond and spaghetti westerns, with a bit of mournful harmonica thrown in. It worked perfectly, as did the fact that the viewer can hear every single shell casing hit the ground throughout the film. Even the gunshots themselves seemed different from those in American films, with less blast and more metallic sounds. It certainly helped create atmosphere. While this and the choreographed gunplay never let you forget you're watching a created thing rather than any semblance of reality, that actually made me more appreciative of the creator. He's certainly created another Johnnie To fan.
I had the fortunate opportunity to see this at the Toronto
International Film Festival. Johnnie To and actress Josie Ho came to
the first screening at TIFF to present the film. I am afraid To is more
comfortably vocal in the interviews on his DVDs.
To begin, the film is not a sequel to The Mission. It is the same general cast with a new actors telling a completely different story with different characters. It is however, in very much in the spirit of The Mission. The good news however is that Exiled rocks. The film starts with a hand knocking on the door. A baby is crying in the background and a woman opens the door. Two men ask for a man named Wo. The woman claims she has never heard of him. The two men, who are assigned to protect Wo, leave. The door is knocking again and another pair of men ask for Wo. The woman claims she has never heard of him once again and shuts the door. The two men have been assigned to kill Wo. The four men meet and wait. Wo pulls in on the street in a truck. The film is done in such dramatic simplicity it does not need translation. And that's a sample of what Exiled is all about. The tension is on for shot one and things move only with a purpose.
These actors all are the character actors of Hong Kong; they usually don't' get lead roles and play supporting roles or lead villains. To uses them to their potential in this. Even though you wouldn't classify any of them as being a star or physically good-looking it is astonishing how much presence each of these actors take up on the screen. There's a part in the film where a police car pulls up to a conflict between the hit men in the film, two of these actors turn around and look at the police car and it gave me goosebumps. Beneath each of these five men who are cold-blooded killers underlies a deep sentimentality and it is felt throughout the film. Between these men, actions speak more than words. Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, Nick Cheung Ka Fai and Roy Cheung play their roles with an underplayed subtle intensity. Francis Ng is between explosive and withheld intensity. The five actors play well together, in the film's dramatic and comedic moments. It's nice to see Simon Yam play a clumsy over-the-top gangster boss after the two Electionfilms. Something to note amongst the actors is Josie Ho as Nick Cheung's wife with a baby which works as the driving force for the entire film. Ho's performance feels real. It is also a surprise because To's films usually are about men and women rarely take a stand but it's nice to see that change now finally. A question asked to the cast at the Venice Film Festival if it was possible that any of the cast members be nominated for acting awards, to which the cast reminded the press that they are an ensemble cast. Each member is just a part of the team and they are working together to reach the same goal. Each member of the team are very good actors in their own right but sadly that makes it harder for each of them to be nominated individually for an award. However in Exiled's case, they do succeed as an ensemble.
The gunfights are phenomenal. I truly believe that even though everyone else have recently caught up; Hong Kong still leads the trend in action film-making. I do not mean that in terms of scale but rather the innovation and effort that goes into these action sequences. What really comes out in the gunfights in Exiled is how closequarters the gunfights actually are. These are multiple gun men in Mexican standoffs shooting at each other closequarters in claustrophobic Macau spaces. At Venice, one of the actors conversed with an American reporter and asked him how gunfights would be set up in Hollywood. The reporter looked back and said, "They wouldn't. There wouldn't set it up like this." I have to say I believe that is true as you literally see the gunpowder flying into the actor's faces.
The film is a film designed to garner more international attention for To it seems but there is nothing wrong with that. If anything, Johnnie To has earned all this; being one of the most consistent HK directors and one of the major reminders of what Hong Kong films are all about. Exiled is not new territory for Johnnie To. It is a combination of all the good elements from Johnnie To films, which include underplayed acting, dormant action set-pieces, empty night spaces, well-fleshed characters, boyish immaturity ^^ and a dark quirky sense of humor. It'll be familiar to fans, but again, Johnnie To has given us enough good films to make this. Exiled hits all those notes but some may say that the film does stray in the second act. I say, it's all in good fun. Hell, it's better.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Hyper-stylized, sombre gangster drama is, for mine, Johnnie To's best
since "A Hero Never Dies" -- not that I'm discounting "The Mission",
"Running Out Of Time" or "Election"; I simply enjoyed this pic so much
and am still basking in its post-screening radiation.
Stunningly photographed (by Siu-keung Cheng)and directed with deft visual brush strokes, it is the simple story of men cornered by progress and rampant corruption in Macau, a truly stunning setting expertly exploited by To.
Both the quieter character moments and the operatic firestorms are visually and aurally breathtaking. A hospital shoot-out is brilliantly staged and manages to feel fresh in To's capable hands. The musical score, courtesy of Dave Klotz and Guy Zerafa, is a revelation, and coats the film in a thick, exotic resin that enhances every emotion.
The performances are exemplary, and it was so great to see Simon Yam, Anthony Wong and Roy Cheung at the height of their powers. Kudos must also be bestowed on the talented and gorgeous Josie Ho, who makes the most of a subsidiary role.
Other notable sequences include a shoot-out with police in a sunny field, an assault on an apartment complex, and the bloody, audacious climax that caps a real cinematic treat.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Stylistically this movie is perfect. But what a strange style ?! a kind
of Hong Kong action Western?? Again, Johnnie To shows his craft in
building up and letting go of tension like the back of his hand.
Supported by almost the same cast as "The Mission", with a story line
that is secondary to the display of choreography. Yet there are
successful use of little devices (like photography, coin, a baby charm
..et)to seeds sentiment and replace dialogue. There is obvious and not
so obvious comic relief from various characters and maybe some
foreshadowing/symbolism(?) from 2 minor women characters.
The are a few action set pieces, the distinct ones being near the beginning in an atrium, another soon to follow in the back stairwells of a apartment complex. The sound is amazing. The score is kind of American Western like, and so is the tough gangster kind of sentiments that can usually be found in of Hong Kong action films.
With this tile Johnny To has succeeded in having an original
perspective on the action / crime genre. He seems to be playing around
with his gangsters in his movies. Have them act slightly different from
what you expect. Perhaps making a little fun of them with their code
and ethics. Or he genuinely thinks the world of them.
Anyway the gangsters in this movie are on a mission to kill an ex member who was exiled. After a intense shootout they clean up the place, cook and eat dinner. As they were all friends once they offer "Wo" the exiled one a favour. He wants do a last job in order to provide enough income for his wife and baby. The way things play out is a bit abstract and not much is said. Through the dynamics of the main characters it is obvious though that they share a bond. And that is all you need to know. Of course matters don't go like they planned which makes events rather compelling. All of the main characters are marvelous but in particular Anthony Wong. (Come to think of it, I don't think I ever seen him do poorly.) They show emotion without having much of a expression. As always Simon Yam is wonderful as the bad guy. Something about his look and charm that makes his characters even more evil than they already are. It is like second nature to him. Let's face it if it weren't for these actors this movie wouldn't work. It would have been average, dull even. The pace of the movie on the whole is moderate but when the action begins the pace is real fast. The action scenes are beautiful as they are stylish and intense. The finale is short but a real treat. Heroic bloodshed with a lot of blood.(Only this blood isn't fluid but some sort of red powder. Very nice effect nonetheless. Clearly CGI, but not bothersome.) Overall Exiled is an excellent crime drama with high tense action that I can truly recommend.
Mainstream Asian cinema owes as much to Hollywood as mainstream cinema
anywhere in the world. Hollywood perfected cinematic storytelling in
the 30's and 40's and its influence is still present in practically
everything we watch. The transition from Hong Kong to Hollywood has
elevated (or destroyed, depending who you ask) the careers of many
directors and actors: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, John Woo and Tsui Hark to
name a few. To his credit, one director has avoided the calling of the
West and remained in Hong Kong not only to buoy HK cinema, but also to
redefine himself as perhaps the most interesting of all mainstream
Johnny To may be the only HK filmmaker who possibly owes as much to Jean-Luc Godard as he does to Hollywood. As such, the similarities between To's films and Tarantino's are impossible to disregard and, like Tarantino, To elevates the tired clichés and conventions of genre pics (the same traits John Woo is (sac)religiously married to) into revisionist works of art. But To's influences don't begin and end with Godard and Exiled hammers this home since it is crammed full of references to Leone's famous Spaghetti Westerns and also to the classic John Ford Westerns that made John Wayne a household name. Make no mistake about it, Exiled is a Western and even though it masquerades as a HK triad shoot em' up, every single detail on the screen is cherry picked from Westerns.Exiled is a good example of how a film can, at first, smack of familiarity before taking off on a fresh, uncharted flight of fiction. Despite a few clunky sequences and some thin writing, Exiled will not only be hailed by To fans as one of his best films, it will also find converts thanks to its Triad trimmings (and those in search of a post-modern Western).
In Exiled, the premise of a typical gangland hit evolves into a blossoming character study of five friends whose pasts unfold in increments alongside the growing chaos of present circumstances. While gun play cracks throughout, To's style is nothing like Woo's, where, instead of making the action the proud centerpiece, To uses it sparingly as an infrequent catalyst to propel our protagonists story arc from one escalating situation to the next. That's not to say the action isn't palpable, but the action is merely a flash of style that's deliberately trumped by the predominant substance throughout. Exiled makes a strong case that if John Woo were to permanently abandon the West for his homeland, he'd have some catching up to do with the current king of Kong.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If "Exiled" could at first appears as a cold style exercise that
focuses itself on the mathematical numbers of five and two, the movie
is at the end one (if not the) best Johnny To's movie, and carries
within a incredible felling of freedom and melancholia. I think that
with this movie, Johnny To archive to reach the level of the best of
his older masters, like John Woo or Tsui Hark.
FIVE : That's around this number that the all movie seems to be build. "Exiled" tells the story of five men against the world, in five parts (that means five gigantic gunfights). But the logical of the number five is broken by one of the member of this gang of five : Wo, who left them years ago. The movie stars when he comes back to Macao, where his four old friends, his wife and his baby, are waiting for him. But the unity is already lost : when they met again, two wants to kill him, and two wants to protect him. There's no wonder why this breaker of symmetry rapidly died, when he refuses to bend over the mathematical beauty of the movie. The former gang will indeed try to find a fifth member (it will be a moral mercenary), but they'll be only four to finish their road. Anyway, the movie isn't rationally build on the number five, but rapidly chooses errancy and coincidences to makes its way. That's the way the gang also fallows when he lets a coin game chooses its path. It's then in in number two, like the two faces of a coin, that the movie will find its unity.
TWO : With the use of that coin, the exiled of the movie takes the face of the duality. The gunfights, if you watch them carefully, are also duels (even with multiple characters and combinations). The number two is indeed at the beginning of Johnny To's project, witch is to combine the codes of a classical Hongkongue polar (with it's killers with sunglasses and ethical from another time, its alway on the move camera, that shoots the killings like musical ballets, etc.) with the ones of 60's European westerns (...Per Qualche Dollari in piu is directly quoted, the atmosphere of the movie reminds the Peckinpah's ones, the OST is a pastiche of Moricone, etc.). It's like the movie itself is a cultural translation of Macao, the Chinese island where the movie occurs, and that has been a Portuguese colony for years. In that original mixture, the movie reminds me of "Cowboy Bebop" (an anime that also mixes Asian culture and occidental western in order to creates feeling of nostalgia and freedom) or of a reverse "Kill Bill".
But this cultural duality is like an echo of the personal style of Johnny To, that always breaks his beautiful gunfights with lighter and melancholic scenes. This fusion and complementarity of the style with its subject creates a great movie, full of freedom, that becomes magnificent in its last killing, beautifully seen through the eyes of a can of Red Bull.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Exiled (a.k.a. Fong Juk) makes me feel as if the memorable French
gangster/Italian Spaghetti Western genre is being revisited.
Director Johnny To has the wisdom to reunite the same 4 out of the 5 main actors in The Mission, his 1999 gangster classic. For some unknown reason one actor was left out and substituted by Nick Cheung (playing Wo in this movie). It seems a pity to me because, not saying Nick Cheung is no good, the original cast of five could have made it possible for making Exiled a genuine sequel to The Mission.
As it stands, Exiled tells a self-contained story (not exactly well-written but reasonable enough as a vehicle for the excellent gunfights it stages): When a Hong Kong mob boss Fay sends two killers, Blaze and Fat, after a renegade ex-gangster Wo found hiding out in Macau, another two hard men, Tai and Cat, turn up to intervene. The five actually know each other. In the face of Wo's wife Jin and baby son, Blaze and his sidekick Fat unwittingly agree to change plan, inadvertently setting things into a violent downward spiral. The final confrontation inside a hotel captured in slow motion is expertly crafted. After the dust is settled the viewers are abruptly reminded that what has just happened only takes as much time for a can of Red Bull drink being tossed up in the air and drops back down on the floor.
There are evidences to prove that Director Johnny To did not dwell in past success of The Mission, because Exile has adopted new techniques not seen before. Being made on location in Macau, Exiled smartly uses a lot of Look-down shots in overcoming the lack of open space provided by this former Portugese enclave some 40 miles west of Hong Kong. The exotic background scenery chosen gives people a surreal sensation, especially for those who know Macau, much more akin to what I'd get from those French and Italian movies of years gone by. The gun play action in Exile is yet another level above that seen in The Mission.
Although overall speaking Exiled did not surpass The Mission, mainly due to its storyline is even weaker than that of the already flimsy Mission, fans of Johnny To would still find it very enjoyable for the directing, acting, editing, music and of course, explosive action.
If you favor your gun play elegantly crafted and choreographed-EXILED is the film for you. This Asian action pix could have worked just as easily as a western for Sergio Leone had it been set in the American old West. And, Hong Kong cult director, John Woo has covered this same ground in many of his films. EXILED is set on the territory of Macao just before the Communist takeover in late 1999. Two groups of hit-men meet up again for a few bloodthirsty and challenging capers, yet we more than suspect that no one will get out alive. Johnny To, the director, has consciously placed the action in the forefront at the expense of the storyline. However, in these types of action/adventure yarns it is not the tale, but the execution which is of prime concern. The narrative is glacially paced, rather than suspenseful, yet the 'pink mist' of the stylishly orchestrated gunfights more than make up for it. In the case of EXILED, 'Style' trumps 'Substance', and it works!
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