After the disappointing no show of Johnnie To’s “Triad Election” in Los Angeles I was very worried that his (what others have called) companion piece to his hit “The Mission” was going to come as far as San Francisco and continue to live in NYC for the remainder of its theatrical life. Alas, To’s “Exiled” has arrived!
Johnnie To is one of the foremost Hong Kong directors of the now. He’s swings from one genre to the other leaving his quirky stamp on everything he does. From hardcore action with a message like “Breaking News” and hardcore action like “Fulltime Killer” to whimsical romantic comedies like “Needing You” and clever crime capers like “Running Out of Time” he bounces gleefully around like no American director can, and each of his films for me has been pleasurably (if not always perfectly) imbibed.
With “The Mission” To recreated the action film as an exercise in minimalism. The settings were stark, the camera was still, and the actors faces rarely showed a hint of emotion. And each gun battle was effective and cool as hell. Like “The Mission, “Exiled” takes place in the world of the Triads among highly skilled grunts whose friendship and brotherhood is put into jeopardy by orders from the greedy and selfish bosses who don’t understand the meaning of trust and friendship and only want more power. In “The Mission” the group of men were hired to body guard one of these bosses at which point the youngest of the tribe has an affair with the bosses wife and everything sort of crumbles from there. Here we’re treated to an almost Hobbit-like introduction as sets of hitmen show up at a doorstep looking for a man named Wo. One set is there to kill Wo, the other is there to stop the first set from killing Wo. As it so happens these four men and Wo are the friends set against each other by a boss that Wo and another of them tried to assassinate. The man sent to do the killing is the great actor Anthony Wong, who was seen in “The Painted Veil” with Ed Norton and Naomi Watts and as the Martin Sheen character in ‘Infernal Affairs” which became “The Departed” in it’s translation to American film studios. Anthony Wong says more with so few words than most actors can with piles and piles of soliloquys and most of the time he’s wearing sun glasses. It’s in his body language and the way he holds his face; an incredible actor.
This setup is much longer than it needs to be. Wo as it turns out has a wife and new born infant which makes it harder to just do him in, but the Boss is calling. After an interestingly built but ludicrously staged gun fight, which would have worked in a more cartoony film perhaps, and a prolonged buddying up sequence they decide to take a job and make some money for Wo’s family. It’s a hit. And during this hit the film finally becomes a lot of fun with a twist that puts each of our heroes equally on the spot.
The simple plot is perfectly streamlined to match the actions beautifully photographed and chaotically choreographed action sequences. One in particular is shot from the top of a building, looking down at an alley as our heroes descend an opposing buildings adobe like staircase. But it’s not only that which makes the movie a joy to watch. Even when these characters don’t seem to be controlling their own fate it’s their decisions that drive the story and not the story driving their decisions. Many of these moments come so naturally they are naturally surprising.
Needless to say things go bad for our heroes and for awhile they resemble wandering Samurai without a master, and like Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” who tosses the stick in the air to choose which fork he takes in the road, they flip a coin to make their decisions.
At first To’s wide angled actors positioned perfectly in the film plain is a bit distracting but after a while the landscapes become so sparse, almost like a Western (in fact one character plays a harmonica and there’s a robbery of an armored vehicle) that they appear far more lonely than they would if they stood together, which in the end they do stand toegther and to apocalyptic effect. To also uses his spacing of actors as a way of creating some nicely positioned jokes.
There’s enough clever plot twists and action scenes I think for many people to enjoy this film, if they can squirm through the first 20 minutes. And if you don’t like subtitles, the characters don’t often speak.