Starring: Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Simon Yam, Nick Cheung, Lam Seut, Roy Cheung, Josie Ho
Director: Johnnie To
Category: Suspense / Action
If you were to compile a list of the best directors currently working in the Hong Kong film industry, Johnnie To would undoubtedly land in the top three. Now, that may not mean a whole lot to American audiences, but for fans of Asian cinema, it’s a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed. It shows, too; not only in the numerous awards that he’s won over the years, but also in the star-studded casts that headline each of his films. “Exiled,” To’s latest entry in the gangster genre, is far from his best, but it’s still a beautifully crafted homage to the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns that doesn’t forget about its Eastern roots. Hollywood should take note: this is how you create a stylish action-thriller without selling out.
The year is 1998 and the Portuguese-run district of Macau is only days away from ushering in a new era under Chinese rule. With the economy of the island literally up for grabs to anyone who claims it, it’s the perfect place to settle down and start anew. After years on the run following a botched assassination attempt on Boss Fey (Simon Yam), former gangster Wo (Nick Cheung) has moved to Macau with the hopes of doing just that with his wife (Josie Ho) and newborn son.
Unfortunately, Fey doesn’t forgive so easily, but when he sends a pair of hitmen (Anthony Wong and Lam Suet) to exact revenge, two others (Francis Ng and Roy Cheung) arrive to stop them. The five men are actually childhood friends who agree to the terms of the hit with one exception – perform one final job with the purpose of scraping together some money for Wo’s family – but when the job goes wrong and their friend is killed, the remaining four team up to take down Fey and his men.
Although the plot may sound complex, it’s actually quite simple. The reason you may feel otherwise is because the movie – which opens with a Mexican standoff that, I kid you not, lasts nearly 20 minutes – begins well after the story has started. It’s not until the characters mention their mutual past that the audience learns anything about the events preceding the film, but that’s okay, since anyone that’s ever seen a HK gangster film before already knows it has something to do with brotherhood, love, honor, and all of that other mumbo jumbo. This isn’t meant to discredit the film for leaving out such pertinent information, but rather warn those that simply aren’t patient enough to sit around and watch a good story unfold.
Johnnie To is a master of his art and has one of the most unique visual styles in the business. One of the best things he does is framing large group of characters; not just standing next together, mind you, but in a way that really breaks up the entire screen. Only those who give a damn about film aesthetics will notice the technique (let alone admire it), but it’s an impressive feat nonetheless. He also utilizes a really cool blood powder effect that, while not entirely realistic, is just as effective and twice as stylish as the CG blood that everyone was raving about in “300.”
Anthony Wong and Francis Ng deliver fine performances as usual, while longtime To collaborators Roy Cheung and Lam Suet offer diversification amongst the quartet. Simon Yam, meanwhile, is a little over-the-top in his portrayal of the greedy mobster boss, perhaps only because the rest of the actors are so subdued in their roles. And since the characters don’t speak a whole lot, the story seems to drag more than it really is. In fact, if there’s one thing worth criticizing about the film, it’s that it runs about 15 minutes too long. This could have easily been remedied with a few more cuts or a little more action, but it’s hardly noticeable in its current state. “Exiled” is gritty gangster drama at its finest, and if you’re lucky enough to live in a city that’s actually playing the film, you’d be crazy not to check it out.