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As eagerly awaited as a new Terence Malick film, After This Our Exile, the latest work by idiosyncratic Hong Kong director Patrick Tam more than lives up to expectations. Known as a teacher of Wong-Kar-wai, Tam's first feature in seventeen years is a compelling and moving film about the complex interaction between an irresponsible father and his loyal and devoted son who would do anything for him, even steal. Winner of major Hong Kong awards as well as Taiwan's Golden Horse Award for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor, the film carries on the gritty tradition of the Hong Kong New Wave of the 70s and 80s while defying patriarchal genre conventions and probing greater emotional depths than much of the mainstream cinema of the time.
Set in Malaysia but spoken in Cantonese, the film uses flashbacks, crosscutting, and ellipsis to tell a riveting and often-melodramatic story. After Lee Yuk-lin (Charlie Yeung) walks out on her abusive husband Chow Cheung-sheng, (Aaron Kwok), a compulsive gambler, their nine-year old son Boy (Gouw Ian Iskandar) runs to his father's place of work to tell him of her escape. The overwrought Sheng drags Lin home and physically and verbally abuses her, but eventually shows his loving, almost childlike side and they end up having sex.
After taking Boy on a cruise, Sheng returns to discover than Lin has left again, this time with another man, and father and son are left to struggle alone. Sheng has lost his job, owes gambling debts, and Boy is without the money to pay the bus driver to go to school. Forced to move to a seedy small town hotel, Sheng is driven to pimping a girl (Kelly Lin) to make money but their life soon begin to spiral further downward. Sheng teaches Boy to sneak into people's home to steal jewelry, but the child is caught and sent to a detention center in a sequence that leads to a startling and unexpected conclusion.
While After This Our Exile sounds depressing and there are some truly heartbreaking moments, the film has touches of kindness and humanity that are enhanced by the caliber of the acting and the rich cinematography of Ping Bin-lee. Iskandar, also known as Ng King-to, is sympathetic and moving as the appealing but not cloying child who loves his dad but is slow to realize how he is guiding him into self-destructive behavior. Pop singer Aaron Kwok gives a masterfully nuanced performance as the deadbeat husband who manages to evoke sympathy as a suffering human being in spite of his failings. We know that Sheng is doing what he does because he loves his son, never grasping the extent to which he has endangered the boy until a furious coda suggests that pain heals very slowly and sometimes not at all.
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