Thursday, 27 September 2007

Exiled (2006) - Hong Kong

Director: Johnnie To
Cast: Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Nick Cheung, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet, Josie Ho, Simon Yam, Hui Shiu Hung
Running Time: 108min

Johnnie To has been receiving a lot of international acclaim in recent years, with the ‘Election’ series proving to be a staple at film festivals across the world. His follow up film ‘Exiled’ has been put forward as Hong Kong’s entry into the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ category for this year’s Oscars, having also won To the best director prize at this years Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards.

‘Exiled’ tells the story of a group of assassins, brought together by a hit ordered on their inactive colleague Wo by their leader, Boss Fay. The assassin ordered to do the hit (Blaze) and his partner turn up at Wo’s abode, to find two of their colleagues already waiting outside the building. These two have decided that they will try to prevent the hit being carried out as one of the men (Tai) has a long history of working alongside Wo, and doesn’t feel that his killing is justified.

The opening scene plays out the arrival of the men at Wo’s house, without revealing their purpose. The sinister music playing in the background, combined with the anxious look across the face of Wo’s wife, sets up an incredibly tense atmosphere as the four men sit outside, waiting for Wo’s arrival. When Wo does arrive, we see Tai and Blaze follow him into the building; he seems aware of their presence, but is not especially moved by it, even leaving the door open as he enters his flat. Upon entering he checks the boiling pot on the stove before opening a drawer to take out, and load up his gun.

What then ensues is a stylised shootout of the kind Hong Kong cinema has always been famed for, and just seems to be able to pull-off so much better than Western or fellow-Asian imitators. The metallic sound of bullets reverberates around the flat, as the three men move around, taking shots at one another. I don’t wish to spoil the outcome of this scene, as the tension of the opening wouldn’t be quite the same if you knew the outcome. Therefore I will refer to the assassins as ‘the group of assassins’ from now on.

Upon leaving the flat, the group of assassins then embark on a mission to find as many large paying jobs as they can, aware of a need to scramble money together before Chinese rule enters the Portuguese colony of Macau, where the film takes place. Chinese rule is an issue which has always been prevalent in Hong Kong cinema, specifically the British handover of rule to China in 1997, and To obviously sees large parallels between his country and Macau, where power was handed over from the Portuguese government in 1999.

Along their travels, the group of assassins get into many skirmishes with both rival gangs and their own, leading to a final showdown with their leader Boss Fay at the conclusion of the film.

However, these instances are secondary to the main theme of the film, which is the close bond that is created within the group of assassins. Male-bonding is a theme To has investigated before in previous films, most notably 1999’s ‘Running out of Time’ and ‘The Mission’, but never has he so effectively portrayed it through his actors. The banter between the characters is top notch throughout, and adds a much needed strain of comedy to the proceedings. ‘Exiled’ is accomplished in many areas, but the chemistry between the actors is definitely a stand-out, and much of the credit for this must surely go to To’s direction.

What gives ‘Exiled’ a feeling of completeness as an artistic vision, is the way in which the shooting style and music never feel as if they are overtaking the story, and instead just complement it perfectly. Cheng Siu Keung’s cinematography is excellent throughout, with the muted, but yet slightly dreamy colours, providing a faultless background to the scenes unfolding in front of it. Keung and To are long-time collaborators, and their understanding is such that they are steadily becoming the Wong Kar Wai - Christopher Doyle of current-day Hong Kong cinema. A mention has to also be made of the music score by Dave Klotz and Guy Zerafa, which goes from classic action movie to Spaghetti Western in a blink of an eyelid, and manages to greatly amplify either the tension or comedic aspect of many scenes.

As has always been a staple of Hong Kong action films, there are plenty of comedic aspects thrown in along the way to break up the suspense in the action scenes. Notable here are the performances by Hui Shiu Hung as a bumbling police officer counting down the hours until he retires, and the underground surgeon, who just can’t help but laugh at the injury Boss Fay has suffered in a shootout.

Following on from the success of the ‘Election’ films was never going to be an easy task for To. ‘Exiled’ matches what he achieved with those films and is another masterpiece from a director in a very rich vein of form. It is fully focused throughout, with not a scene going to waste, and all the elements are completed with such precision that it is truly a joy to watch. This is a must see film for anybody who considers themselves a supporter of great cinema.

Buy the Hong Kong DVD (English subtitles) at Play-Asia.