By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Exiled,” Magnolia Pictures, 2007]
Watching “Exiled,” you get the sense that director Johnnie To believes that old expression about a picture being worth a thousand words. The film is about a group of old friends, gangsters who grew apart and who are now thrown back together by chance. To hints at what drove the five men in separate directions, but he lets the audience infer most of the backstory from the juxtaposition of two photos: one new and one from years earlier, when the men were still boys.
To, like a lot of action directors, doesn’t have much use for words in general; the most important exchanges in “Exiled,” as in most of his pictures, are of bullets, rather than dialogue. Get ready for shoot-outs, and you better like them absurd-slash-borderline ridiculous. The film is filled from start-to-finish with massive gunfights that rival anything in the bombastic To’s oeuvre. Every couple minutes another sequence begins and men, bullets, exaggerated puffs of blood, and even large doors fly and spin through the air. Whatever else the title may refer to, it also reflects the fact that real-world physics have no place in this film.
Complexity and style are important to action sequences, and “Exiled” has enough of both for ten films. But these scenes also require clarity to bring the whole thing together, something To often misses. Some of the gunfights, like a beautiful (if men desperately killing one another can be described as “beautiful”) sequence in an underground clinic, are lit harshly to create dark shadows and intense atmosphere. But they’re so darn murky, and the exchanges so full of combatants wearing dark suits, that it can be very difficult to tell moment-to-moment who is shooting, who is getting shot, and why. One minute you gasp at an intense blast of coolness (say, the way To stages that clinic scene in a room full of curtains that can be thrust about like bullfighters’ capes) the next you’re scratching your head trying to figure out which character just fell out a window.
Regardless, those scenes are breathtakingly stylish and they add to the overall mood, which is dark, foreboding, and incredibly manly. Heavily inspired by the Western, and by Leone in particular (Strong silent types! Triangular standoffs! Grizzled men smoking cigars!), “Exiled” extends the gangsters-as-frontier outlaws further. It’s set on the island of Macao in 1998 as a change of leadership is about to take place and our protagonists and their “old ways” are about to be made obsolete: think Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country.” Lawlessness rules: the only policeman in sight is a bumbling oaf who plays the comic relief. Instead the gangsters live by their own code of ethics: one that dictates that you can try to kill a man one moment, and then help him refurbish his apartment the next.
That hilarious sequence comes early in the film and establishes the dynamic between the friends: Blaze (Anthony Wong) and his partner have come to kill Wo (Nick Cheung); To (Francis Ng) and his have come to protect him. After a stalemate, the five agree to table their differences temporarily and work together to get some money for Wo’s wife and infant. It’s the appearance of Wo’s baby, in fact, that stops the first bout of gunplay. The men are killers, but not the cold-blooded variety.
Though the action is a bit murkier than, say, To’s “Breaking News” (2004), the characters are richer and the story more satisfying than his recent (and arguably over-praised) “Election and “Triad Election.” In the end, in the midst of a showdown to end all showdowns, there is one more photograph, and this one speaks even more loudly than the others. It will linger in your memory long after the “cool” parts with the guns have faded.
“Exiled” opens in New York on August 31st (official site).