Hong Kong's foremost practitioner of the gangster genre, Johnnie To (杜琪峰) teams up once again with a strong cast of long-term collaborators in his latest gangster drama Exiled (放逐). This new work is less complexly plotted and lighter on social criticism than Election and its sequel. As usual, it mixes tragedy and deadpan comedy into a highly entertaining, action-packed, and darkly comic gangster flick.
Set on the eve of Macau's handover to China in 1999, the film opens with a 20-odd-minute scene that is a self-contained masterpiece. Two pairs of men visit a house, one after another, looking for a man called Wo. They are told there is no one there bearing that name. They wait, eyeing each other uneasily.
A cop passes by. He is only hours away from retirement and turns a blind eye to the trouble brewing. In such deft and subtle brushstrokes, the lawless world of the film is thus established.
The arrival of Wo precipitates a fast-paced shootout, after which everyone sits down to dinner. Such sudden shifts in mood are typical of To. It turns out that all the five men are childhood buddies. One team has been ordered to kill Wo, an exiled gangster trying to live a quiet life with his wife and baby while the other have vowed to protect him at all cost.
The assassins agree to let Wo carry out one last job to make some money for his future widow and newborn baby. But of course things don't go as planned and the various hitmen get embroiled in feuds with new enemies and the story builds up until the climatic blood-letting in a hotel lobby.
To's highly stylized storytelling is visually eloquent, and the story and the motives of the characters are deftly outlined without unnecessary exposition. The protagonists progress through one finely choreographed set pieces after another, each a showcase for the stunning cinematography that lovingly captures smokily lit interiors and the rundown facades and tropical exteriors in the old city.
Directed by: Johnnie To (杜琪峰)
Starring: Nick Cheung (張家輝) as Wo; Josie Ho (何超儀) as Jin; Anthony Wong (黃秋生) as Blaze; Francis Ng (吳振宇) as Tai; Roy Cheung (張耀揚) as Cat; Lam Suet (林雪) as Fat; Simon Yam (任達華) as Boss Fay
Running time: 132 minutes
Taiwan release: today
Language: In Cantonese with Chinese and English subtitles
The action scenes are remarkable blends of To's minimalism and the choreographed ballet that makes Hong Kong's gangster cinema such a popular favorite. The innovativeness of one standoff scene, which takes the characters from a doctor's apartment and into the alley outside delivers an eye-popping viewing experience to action fans who have grown weary of the cliqued display of gunplay in conventional gangster flicks.
The film also conjures up the spirit of westerns, as protagonists, in various guises of ultra-cool chic, speak only when necessary and are willing to die for an honorable cause. This is leavened by deadpan humor that makes these violent characters come alive as sympathetic characters. To's hitmen, who may decide their next course of action simply by flipping a coin, are not an attempt to reproduce a verion of reality, but attempt instead to explore the cinematic possibilities of a perennial genre and top it with a perfect look and a unique sensibility.