How can you call yourself a Hong Kong cinema enthusiast and not enjoy Johnnie To’s latest crime drama “Exiled”? It’s filled to the brim with unspoken pathos, tough men who let their action speak for them, and women who can’t possibly understand the ways of such men. It is, in a word, pure Johnnie To. For fans of To’s 1999 movie “The Mission”, 2006′s “Exiled” feels like a continuation of that saga. In fact, with the exception of one character, all of the actors from “The Mission” have returned to “Exiled” in pretty much the same roles they played in 1999 — except it’s not the same roles. For you see, “Exiled” is a sequel to “The Mission”, but it’s not really a sequel to “The Mission”. Get it?
Our tale opens in Macau. It is 1999, and Macau, like Hong Kong two years before it, is about to be handed over to Mainland China from Portuguese rule. A knock on a door is answered by a nervous Jin (Josie Ho), the mother of an infant boy, whose husband Wo (Nick Cheung) is not home. The man at the door, Tai (Francis Ng), asks for Wo. Minutes later, a second knock on the same door reveal Blaze (Anthony Wong), also asking for Wo. We eventually come to learn that Blaze and another gunman, Fatty (Suet Lam) have been dispatched by Hong Kong crime lord Fay (Simon Yam) to kill Wo, who has been on the lam ever since he botched a hit on Fay many years ago. Returning to Macau on the eve of Chinese rule, it would appear, was a bad move for Wo and his family.
We also come to learn that while Blaze and Fatty have been sent to kill Wo, Tai and Cat (Roy Cheung) have come on their own accord to protect him. The five men were once good friends from their youths, and, it is inferred, risen through the underworld together as gunmen. After a brief, violent encounter that leaves nothing resolved, the fivesome agree to put aside their reasons for this unexpected reunion until matters can be properly resolved tomorrow. But fate, and in particular the utterly insane motivations of Boss Fay, intervenes, sending the five men on a course of action that will bring all of their unresolved conflicts to a head in a bloody free-for-all involving an entrepreneuring prostitute, a hotel lobby, and bags full of gold bars.
For fans of Johnnie To, “Exiled” doesn’t represent any major leap in the filmmaker’s oeuvre, although it is very much To at his best. The style that To has cultivated over the years, from “The Mission” to “PTU” to the most recent “Election” series, are in full show here. As is the case with most Milky Way productions, all the usual faces are present, including Shiu Hung Hui as a hapless Macau cop and Richie Ren (“Breaking News”), whose character enters the picture towards the end. Ren doesn’t have all that much to do, but he does make quite an impression while he was around.
If you are wondering why the film is set in 1999, there really doesn’t seem to be all that much reason behind it, save to link “Exiled” a bit more to “The Mission”, which was shot (and, one presumes, set) in 1999. Mention of the Portuguese transfer of Macau to Mainland China comes up often, but perhaps I just didn’t get any of the “inside” references that To and screenwriters Kam-Yuen Szeto and Tin-Shing Yip were going for. Not that you should worry. “Exiled” has little to do with the upcoming handover, and more to do with how these five men deal with this particularly complex dilemma they have found themselves in.
Although by no means a great film, and yes, To has done better, “Exiled” does excel in the usual areas, including the director’s trademark style and flash. The highlight is a running gunfight inside and outside the apartment building of a black market doctor, including a single take sequence that follows our anti-heroes as they shoot their way down an exterior stairway, only to realize that they’ve forgotten something very important behind. Fay, in his insane ways, of course delivers the package by throwing it outside the window and shooting it a few times. The ending action scene is abrupt and much too short, but then again, this is Johnnie To, and he’s done this before.
It goes without saying that To has gotten the best out of his cast, but that’s to be expected considering how many films he’s worked on with these very same people. The venerable Anthony Wong and the always reliable Francis Ng give their usual good performances; at this point in their respective careers, I don’t think either men are capable of doing anything less. Cheung and Lam have less to do, but again, their character archetype doesn’t require very much from them in the way of development. And of course, Simon Yam. No one plays crazy psycho as well as Simon Yam. The man just digs his teeth into the role and comes out grinning from ear to ear.
It’s hard to describe just what it is about “Exiled” that makes it a good movie. It is, simply put, “a Johnnie To movie”, and if you are one of those lucky people who knows what that means, then “Exiled” will appeal to you. At this point in his career, To can put together a movie like “Exiled” over a weekend and not break a sweat. The man has done this type of film so many times, with the same characters (and heck, even actors), that it’s second nature. In that respect, is “Exiled” a great Johnnie To movie? No. But it’s a good Johnnie To movie, and considering the dreck coming out of Hong Kong in recent years, that’s saying a lot.
Johnnie To (director) / Kam-Yuen Szeto, Tin-Shing Yip (screenplay)
CAST: Anthony Wong Chau-Sang …. Blaze
Nick Cheung …. Wo
Roy Cheung …. Cat
Suet Lam …. Fat
Francis Ng …. Tai
Richie Ren …. Sergeant Chen
Simon Yam …. Boss Fay
Siu-Fai Cheung …. Jeff
Josie Ho …. Jin
Shiu Hung Hui …. Sergeant Shan
Ka Tung Lam …. Boss Keung