Cinema Obscura: Exiled
To my infinite shame I only have a cursory knowledge of the cinema of Johnnie To, Exiled being the fourth film I have seen by the much vaunted director. I’ve always intended to see more of his films, but for whatever reason Hong Kong’s current auteur has been ridiculously poorly represented in this country.
Despite wide spread acclaim for his films, it was only until recently that you could obtain any of his films in this country aside from his duelling assassins movie Fulltime Killer which was in relation to the rest of his work a creative nadir.I first encountered the work of To when one of his films was shown on British television at some ridiculous hour in the morning. The movie in question would be The Mission, a film which still doesn’t have a proper DVD release (either in Europe or in Hong Kong) despite nearly a decade having passed since it was released.
The Mission would tell the story of a disparate group of professionals hired to protect a gangland boss. At the time I was in the midst of discovering Asian Cinema and in particular the balletic combat exemplified by the work of John Woo. As such I went into The Mission expecting the same kind of over the top gunplay and histrionics, what I got was instead a perfect representation of To’s methodology.
The Mission is a film which is conceptually an action film, but uses its action set pieces as a way of contextualising its main characters. To is far more interested in the divergent dynamics within his group of bodyguards and the moments of gunplay, characterised by an eerie stillness rather than the usual Hong Kong acrobatics, just serve as punctuation for his characters. Exiled takes a similar tact and in a lot of ways works as a thematic sequel to The Mission.
The film opens with knocking on a door, a pair of well dressed men asking the startled occupant if Mr. Wo is in. They are told that no one named Wo lives their and they promptly decamp to a nearby square. The process is repeated when two more men arrive, receiving exactly the same response and taking position in the same square.
This opening, with its minimal dialogue, sets the tone of the film completely. Exiled is essentially a spaghetti western transposed to the Macau of 1998. The ambience and framing are perfect reproductions, even borrowing Leone patented headshots for the introduction of the characters. Even the scenery lends itself to this Spaghetti Western feel, with Macau being a Portuguese colony just about to be handed back to China. As such the streets are sun drenched and lined with pearly white villas which give a flavour of Mexico.
The four men are looking for Wo for different reasons, two of them Blaze and Fat are here to kill him by the order of Boss Fay. Tai and Cat, the other two men are here to protect Wo. The two teams stand watching each other, smoking cigars and waiting for Wo to return home. Wo’s wife stares nervously out of the window as she awaits the chaos her husband’s arrival will cause.
When the action does kick off, Wo’s attempts to slink back home being noticed by both Tai and Blaze, the film showcases a wrinkle on the To formula. To’s earlier films are best exemplified by their meditative, Zen like, depictions of action. Exiled maintains a sense of this stillness, the slow build up to the fracas involves Wo methodically loading his revolver as Tai and Blaze inexplicably shed bullets from their ammo clips, but the action itself is heightened to a point of near ridiculousness. The resultant gun battle in Wo’s home ends with two of the gunfighters shooting a wooden door through the air at each other as outside Cat shoots an empty can which flies dramatically at an on looking police officer.
The gunfight only ends when Wo’s wife appears holding Wo’s month old son, the hitmen and bodyguards deciding to cease fire and instead talk about the situation. The four men proceed to repair Wo’s broken home, fixing broken mirrors, filling in the bullet holes in doors, and generally returning everything to a state of order. The wrinkle in the plot is that all five men have known each other since they were kids, Wo and Tai falling foul of their previous employer after a botched assassination attempt. The five men decide to try and raise some money for Wo’s family; unfortunately this job forces them afoul of their deliriously malicious employer Boss Fay.
That is about as much plot as I am willing to go into, because detailing anymore would just be a waste of time. Needless to say the five men find themselves drifting from action set piece to action set piece as they try and work out how to survive a dual assault from their previous employer and a local mob boss. Like The Mission the gunplay in the film only serves as punctuation for the characters, it is that which galvanises and informs them as people more than anything else. Whilst The Mission makes this point clear by having the action staged in a cool and detached manner Exiled takes a different approach and heightens the action to a point where it becomes almost a parody of itself.
There are some moments of genuine viciousness of the film, all perpetrated by Boss Fay, but the general rule of the action scenes is detachment. Each gun battle is superbly orchestrated, with a genuinely suspenseful build up proceeding three of the four major fracases in the film, but it is a means to an end within the film. The movie is far more concerned with the internal dynamics of the group, with Blaze and Tai trying to manoeuvre around each other to obtain their goals.
Blaze is the star of the show and is played with typical aplomb by the always great Anthony Wong. Blaze becomes the defacto leader of the group and the focus of Boss Fay’s anger and malevolence. He is a classic unwilling hero, growling at those who ask for his opinion before finally interjecting with the correct course of action. There is a real conflict within the character, a part of him wanting to stay the course and do his job and the part which knows he can’t possibly kill his childhood friend and this internal confusion makes him dominate any scene he is in.
The other members of the team are never given quite as much to work with, but slot naturally into their roles. Fat and Cat are two characters with very little to contribute to the story, but who are made important facets of the film due to exuberant performances from Lam Set and Roy Cheung respectively. Tai exists as the emotional core of the group, the gangster who has let his heart rule his head and the ever reliable Francis Ng does a fantastic job of dividing audience sympathies between his character and Anthony Wong’s Blaze.
The standout of the cast is Simon Yam who gives a performance as Boss Fay that is both hilarious and terrifying. He is a truly loathable character, but he is played with so much energy and passion that you can’t help but grow to like him a little.
The cast are all Johnnie To regulars and as such it allows them to naturally fit into the vision of the film. Exiled is an ambient piece more than anything, mood, tone and atmosphere being its main components. What the actors do is become part of the tone and mood and as such it all becomes a homogenous product. Simon Yam is a perfect example of this, usually a fairly restrained and toned down actor he understands the need for a big and charismatic villain in the film and completely cuts loose. He becomes a part of the films tone and sets up a genuine external threat to the team by embracing the heightened thematics of the film.
What these actors also allow To to do is focus on the aesthetic elements of the film. Exiled is a film that just radiates style and cool and it is all down to the visual choices that To makes. The violence in the film is naturally heightened and To amplifies this by making each bullet wound explode in clouds of red mist. It is an unusual choice but within the framework of the film it is a choice that makes perfect sense. It allows the bloodshed to standout from the luminously beautiful backgrounds he stages his fights in.
Exiled is a superlatively beautiful film at times, shot with the kind of care and precision you’d usually only expect from a piece of arthouse cinema. Macau makes a good playground for To’s camera, the aesthetic of the country itself fitting the breezy and stylised nature of Exiled perfectly. The spaghetti western tone of the film is helped immensely by a playful soundtrack incorporating harmonics, panpipes and guitars.
But for all of the auditory and visual tricks To uses the core of Exiled is still decidedly simple. It is a film purely about the bond between men, the unwritten code of brotherhood and this simplicity and allows the different elements of the film to mesh together as a fantastic whole.