Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Jul 29, 2013

Exiled (2006)

by Will Ross

It takes a while to see through the haze of Exiled and understand exactly what Johnnie To is up to. In the opening scene, two pairs of assassins arrive at the home of a former comrade — one pair to protect him, the other to kill him — and the camera is constantly drifting, panning, craning, zooming, and the initial impression is one of incoherence. The ensuing Mexican standoff ends in a flurry of gunshots, where the flashy editing does not emphasize choreography, but fragments it, giving the impression of three gunfighters firing blindly at each other. It's a bracing moment, sort of like The Lady from Shanghai's funhouse climax without the mirrors, and it accomplishes two things very well: it introduces characters who are blindly destroying each other, and it establishes that Exiled is a gangster action film whose incoherence is a product of poetic aspirations. That approach works better than you might expect; it sucks the lead out of the bullets and makes the movie a nostalgic tragedy.

The gang of five former friends reunites, but resolves not to kill the condemned Wo, who now has a wife and child. Mob Boss Faye, who ordered, swears retribution against the five friends for their disobeyal, and this sends them into exile in the wilderness of 1998 Macau, as close an analogue to the Wild West as Hong Kong filmmakers have. Character development is sparse (I’d be hard pressed to differentiate any of the protagonists except to assign single adjectives to one or two), but it follows the same MO as the film’s formal elements: it’s vague, but accomplished in sparse and elegant gestures. By its halfway point, despite the heightened action trappings typical of Hong Kong crime cinema, the film takes on an elegaic tone. Uncoincidentally, the halfway mark bears my favourite sequence of the film: after the five friends turn on Boss Faye, a gunfight that saw both Faye and Wo gravely injured, the former party takes Wo to an underground doctor, and then quickly hides as Faye and his men come to the very same clinic to treat Faye’s mutilated testicles. The following apartment shootout encapsulates Exiled’s thematic goals perfectly within its style: it focuses on gunshots whose targets we do not see, fluttering curtains that obscure the action, and above all the dreamy sense of doom surrounding Wo, and his realization that he and his family will be punished for his return to his hometown — just as his friends will. After this gunfight, as the gang’s dillemma comes into proper view, the film markedly improves. (This sequence also features the film’s single best shot, a wide exterior shot of the five friends fleeing down the apartment building’s staircase, slowly tilting with them as they plunge ever downwards.) But though its second half is the better one, Exiled’s flaws remain the same throughout: the film holds its tone across its running time, but not always its depth. The film is never worse than the scenes where it tries self-consciously to be a cool mobster movie; next to the first, third, and final gunfights, the second and fourth ones (in a restaurant and marsh, respectively) feel ordained more for pacing purposes than any considerations of plot or theme. It’s also not a very complex or dense film; partially a product of its airy attitude to style and story, sure, but simpler, fuzzier narratives have yielded profound moments in spades. Nonetheless, when the film works, it works like no other mobster movie I’ve ever seen. It pushes the mythical tropes of the genre as far as they can go, not for the sake of machismo, but for a story of men who cannot abandon their past, even if it means dying for it.


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