Johnnie To has a pretty lengthy filmography, with countless credits as director or producer; many say that the guy has all but single-handedly kept the Hong Kong film industry afloat for the past decade. His movies run the gamut from great (Running Out of Time) to good (Election) to obnoxious (Fulltime Killer).
Using this scale, Exiled floats somewhere between good and obnoxious. To is certainly a talented director; as much as I’ve disliked some of the films he’s involved with, I certainly always saw the technical merit involved. But — like Fulltime Killer or even the almost-good Breaking News — Exiled struggles with anything involving a narrative.
Four men wait outside the house of Wo (Nick Cheung), a former mobster that wants to spend the rest of his life in peace with his wife (Josie Ho). Two of the men were sent to kill Wo, two were sent to protect him. It’s a neat premise, and as the four toughs wait for Wo outside of the apartment complex, the tension escalates considerably.
After an elaborately gimmicky and surreally beautiful shootout (Wo does show up, eventually), the four men call a truce so they can eat dinner together. They grew up together, see, and that’s enough to make the hitmen pause in their mission. All five men agree to go in on a gold heist. Mayhem ensues.
If the set-up sounds unsteady, it is. The screenplay — by To regular Yip Tin-Shing and HK film vet Szeto Kam-Yuen — is an absolute mess in spots. One of the biggest problems is how the characters are developed. The film kicks off with action — there’s no time for backstory when people could be shooting at each other! — and tries to cram a few weighty character explorations as an afterthought. This has to be a first for To; despite how much or how little I’ve liked some of his films (PTU is a good neutral example), I always grew attached or emotionally invested in the characters are some point. In Exiled, every character is as thin as a paper target on a gun range.
Which is a shame; the cinematography is stellar, as usual, and a few scenes were just gorgeous. Cheng Siu Keung’s camera work turns the Chinese territory of Macau into a contemporary western badland, the red- and yellow-hued dust swirling around every scene. And the action sequences are notable. A shootout in the middle of the film — characters twirling through wind- and muzzle flash-blown curtains — is a standout scene. It’s a joy to watch, in the purest sense of the word.
The cast — especially the regulars that are in most of To’s films — also carry the sad script farther than they should. Chueng is great as usual, as are Anthony Wong, Simon Yam and Lam Suet.
It ends up being a visual feast that is a near-total bore. You know it’s not a good thing when you want the characters to die so the film will end sooner. On a technical level, Exiled is excellent. But the story is painfully bad. Maybe To should work that aspect out first in the future.
Exiled (Fong juk, Mandarin title)
-Directed by Johnnie To
-Screenplay by Yip Tin-Shing and Szeto Kam-Yuen
-Cinematography by Cheng Siu Keung
-Cast: Wo (Nick Cheung), Jin (Josie Ho), Blaze (Anthony Wong), Fat (Lam Suet), Tai (Francis Ng), Cat (Roy Cheung), Boss Fay (Simon Yam)
-Released 2006 (Hong Kong), 2007 (USA)
-Runtime: 100 minutes
-Rated R (USA)