In the varied pantheon of action films, I enjoy the heyday of guys like John Woo (before he came to the US, though I still have an uncomfortable affinity for Hard Target), Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark almost as much as I enjoy the best of Seagal (think Out for Justice and Hard to Kill) and Die Hard. The best ultraviolent Hong Kong crime movies are awesome. (Sometimes I like to say radical things like this, things no one else knows. I’m sure I just blew your mind. You can admit it, I do that.) And Johnnie To fits nicely in with that group, working at the same time, largely in the same genre, with many of the same actors, and even collaborating with some of them (Tsui Hark produced To’s 1988 film, The Big Heat). Somehow I missed the boat on To, and his 2006 movie Exiled is the first one I’ve seen, but if this is indicative of his work, it sure as hell isn’t going to be the last.
Exiled starts with two pairs of bad looking dudes showing up at the same house moments apart looking for a guy named Wo (Nick Cheung), an ex gangster who just wants to leave that life behind him and hang out with his wife and baby. This is like a who’s who of badass Hong Kong action stars. Between the actors who play the hitmen they’ve been in so many kickass movies that even to list the highlights would take way too long. You can look up their credits if it means that much to you, it’s impressive. Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet) are there to kill Wo, while Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung) are there to protect him.
Blaze and Tai follow Wo into his apartment, and while he may be a ruthless thug, Blaze isn’t going to let Wo go down without at least giving him a fighting chance. While Wo loads his revolver, Blaze and Tai pop out the clips on their semiautomatics, and remove some bullets. If Wo only gets six shots, they only get six shots. This way they all start out on equal footing. There seems to be some honor among these criminals.
After a tense gun battle where no one kills anyone, they sit down and share a hearty dinner and have a slumber party. At this point you might be asking yourself, didn’t these dudes try to kill each other a minute ago? And you would be correct. But there is a but. It turns out that these five guys, Wo, Blaze, Tai, Fat, and Cat, were childhood friends, and they came up in the gang together. This makes sense, and explains why it didn’t seem like Blaze wanted to shoot Wo, and why Tai didn’t want to shoot Blaze, and why Wo didn’t seem overly concerned with the whole Mexican standoff thing. Blaze was only following orders from Boss Fay (Simon Yam), who Tai and Wo attempted to assassinate, and Wo, being a stand up dude, took all the blame, letting Tai off the hook. So now you can see why Tai has Wo’s back.
Unfortunately for Blaze, this whole not killing Wo thing puts him in a tight spot with Boss Fay. Again Wo demonstrates that he’s a solid bro. He understands that Blaze has to kill him, and that there’s no way around it. Wo just wants Blaze to hold off long enough to get some money to set up his family first.
There’s a moment that characterizes how badass and jaded the people in Exiled are. During the night, Wo’s wife Jin (Josie Ho) looks at Blaze and asks, “Please spare our lives.” In a lesser movie there would be discussion and pleading and tears, but not here. Jin and Blaze just look at each other. He doesn’t respond, and she doesn’t try again. There is nothing else for anyone to say.
In the morning the friends set out in the back of Wo’s moving truck, looking for one last big score, so Blaze can then kill Wo. Through round about means they unknowingly accept a contract that Boss Fay himself has put out on a rival, but when they show up for the hit, Fay shows up too. So much for trying to avoid the guy you’re trying to avoid.
To give a full rundown of the plot would take too long. I don’t have the attention span to write it, you don’t have the attention span to read it. Exiled is a complicated story that never really stops building, there is a lot going on. It keeps twisting and turning, but in the best possible way. (That is not to say there is a “twist” twist, but the story doesn’t necessarily go where it first seems.) But despite the complexity, the story never gets convoluted, it flows super smooth, and it is always clear what is going on. In lesser hands this would have turned into a muddy mash up where no one has any idea what the fuck is going on, but To keeps everything moving along even and clear on the storytelling level.
Gradually the film evolves from a gangster movie into a modern day spaghetti western. By the time the crew rolls into a hotel/saloon for the final battle, each swigging a bottle of whiskey, to the sound of a single harmonica playing, the movie has fully made the transition. There is even a pseudo stagecoach robbery.
Like the best of the “Bullet Operas,” Exiled is beautiful. Every shot is perfectly framed, every camera move serves a purpose, and the gun fights are choreographed like ballet. To makes use of many of the standards of the genre, like slow motion, pushing cameras, close ups, and smoke, but doesn’t overuse them. It is stylized, but not overly stylized. (It is not like some of John Woo’s American movies where it feels like he scribbled his goddamned initials on every single frame just in case you missed his name in the credits.)
Exiled is set in Macao in 1998. Initially this didn’t mean anything to me, and it seemed like strange choice since the story seems like it could have been set pretty much anywhere at any time. Curious, I looked up Macao. As it turns out, Macao, along with Hong Kong, is one of two “special administrative regions” of China. The Portuguese controlled the region until it was handed over to China in December of 1999. (Of course it’s more complex than that, but if you want more you can look that up too.)
So the action is set under the looming specter of Chinese control. The citizens at large were worried about what was going happen after the transfer, and the gangsters also had their own concerns related to the change. Some were leaving town, and on the other side of the coin, new guys where showing up and competing for territory in a new market. From the perspective of Exiled anyway, Macao was turning into the wild west, with tensions running high all over, so that even criminals weren’t immune. It isn’t quite a lawless frontier, but from the character of Sergeant Shan (Shiu Hung Hui) who pops up occasionally for moments of comic relief, and the fact that some gangsters can have a shootout in an apartment and no one seems to mind, it is clear that the law isn’t doing much to control the crime. At first I didn’t get why the movie morphed into a western, but from this vantage point, it makes perfect sense, and adds even more levels of thematic depth. How many times have we seen a western that parallels Wo’s story, where a gunslinger wants to hang up his guns and leave his past behind him, only to be pulled back in by forces beyond his control? It is a western trope recontextualized. Usually this course of action feels forced and winds up pissing me off, but To pulls it off.
The hand of fate is definitely at work in Exiled. Fate that it was Blaze sent to kill Wo. Fate that Wo protected Tai, and the other way around. Fate that they unknowingly took a job from Boss Fay, and that Fay showed up at the hit. Fate goes on and on. They even let the toss of a coin decide which direction to go when they find themselves at literal and figurative crossroads. They are drawn along with the currents, all of them, and don’t have a choice. Give it a chance and Exiled will take you on a similar ride.