If "Election" and "Triad Election" were Johnny To‘s succinct Hong Kong slant on the "Godfather" trilogy, "Exiled" is his luxuriant, entertaining Sergio Leone riff, set in a 1998 Macau preparing for its handover back to the PRC. Years ago, Wo (Nick Cheung) tried to assassinate Triad boss Fay (Simon Yam) and was forced to flee when he failed. His return draws four of his old colleagues out, two, Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet), arriving with the orders to kill him, and two, Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung), hoping to protect him. There seems to be more backstory than that, but you get what you can from quick exchanges between gunfire â€” "Exiled" is a film content to leave its characters’ motivations to be inferred while keeping its outrageous gun battles fully articulated in slow-mo and blood that explodes like bursts of powder into the air. The first unfolds before we have any chance to figure out what’s going on â€” four hitmen gathering in a courtyard outside of Wo’s house, exchanging silent acknowledgments and glowering through sunglasses before leaping into a skirmish that kicks doors up through the air but leaves everyone, miraculously, unhurt. The revelation that Wo now has a wife and child gives everyone pause, and while they figure out what to do, the five move furniture into the house, have a raucous dinner and reminisce about when they were all young gangsters together. Wo has to die, it’s decided, but before he does perhaps they can do one last job to get him some money to leave his wife and child.
As in last year’s "Triad Election," the shadow of China looms over "Exiled" with a "party’s over" vibe. To’s gangsters, laconic in suits and cigarettes, have triangle standoffs, shootouts in restaurants and a chance at stealing, of all things, gold, but they’re fast running out of wild west to revel in, and when they find themselves having to flee town, they decide on a direction with a coin toss â€” it doesn’t really matter.
After the ruthlessness with which the "Triad" films demolished the mythology of brotherhood amongst criminals, the genuine, goofy allegiance and fondness "Exiled"’s hitmen have for each other is welcome, if shot through with melancholy. The weary criminals aren’t the only ones indulging in nostalgia â€” the whole film evinces a wistfulness for the type of melodramatic, bombastic shoot ’em up John Woo put on the map, in which loyalty and honor were loyalty and honor, and a man could jump through the air shooting two guns in slow motion without provoking snickers or eye rolls. The gun battles are the best part of To’s film, which, despite its refreshingly tender treatment of male friendship, seems attenuated otherwise, the pensive final chapter of some longer epic that was never made. When the bullets fly, though, it’s riveting and just as often funny, To adding enough winking touches (a doctor struggling to sew up one man’s groin wound as he shoots at targets through a window, a get-away vehicle that has to be pushed to a start, "Little Miss Sunshine" style) to chase away the ghosts of Hong Kong action films past.
"Exiled" opens in New York on August 31st.
+ "Exiled" (Magnolia)