It is apparent from the opening sequence of Pang Ho-Cheung’s Hong Kong police procedural Exodus that this will be an odd experience: starting with a close-up of a picture of Queen Elizabeth II, emphasising her all-seeing eyes and placing the scene prior to 1997, the camera then pulls back down the hallway of a police station where a group of ‘frogmen’ are beating up a suspect with mallets to the accompaniment of classical music. Two members of the team stand back to make sure their activity is not interrupted, and redirect a young police officer who stumbles on to the scene. The suspect is almost able to escape, because his assailants struggle to maintain balance in their flippers, but he is always dragged back down to the ground. In the present day, beat cop Tsim Kin-Yip (Simon Yam) is on duty in the report room. He takes a statement from Kwan Pin-Ming (Nick Cheung), who has been accused of peeping in a female bathroom. Kwan insists that a group of vengeful women are plotting to kill all the men in the world and that he was gathering evidence to expose their secret network. Tsim finds it hard to take this story seriously, but still writes it down. Later that evening, Tsim is informed that the statement has gone missing, so he must interview the perpetrator again. This time, Kwan confesses to being a pervert. Finding it hard to accept this sudden change of story, Tsim starts to investigate Kwan’s claims.
This summary of Exodus suggests a crazy conspiracy thriller with gruesome death scenes, but Pang subverts genre expectations in terms of both his handling of the plot and casting of the central protagonist. Yam has played so many police officers that, by this point in his career, the actor himself has probably lost track of the number of roles that have required him to carry a badge. However, this is a notable change of pace from the in-control law enforcers seen in such Milkyway Image productions as PTU (2003) and Eye in the Sky (2007). Tsim has served on the force for over twenty years, but has been routinely passed-over for promotion, although he happily accepts mundane desk assignments and would rather go straight home after work than get drunk with the rest of the squad. His interest in the case comes less from a desire to prove his worth to his superiors than from a lurking suspicion that something is not right in a world that otherwise appears to be fairly ordered. Tsim initially does things by-the-book, which leads to his revised report being disregarded, and then quietly conducts an off-duty investigation. Yet curiosity is always tempered by caution, the acknowledgment that some matters are best left alone. Yam’s characters are usually placed at the centre of the action, engaging in banter or giving orders, while Tsim is very much an outsider, framed in isolation in such spaces as his apartment, a restaurant, and the police station locker room.
Despite his concentrated efforts, which cause distance from his wife Anne (Annie Liu), Tsim is little closer to cracking the case after more than an hour of screen time, but has embarked on an affair with Pun Siu-Yuen (Irene Wan), the former partner of Kwan. The scenes they share, particularly those in her apartment and a karaoke room, have a warmth that is absent from the rest of the film, which portrays Hong Kong as a place of postmodern anxiety. This is not the bustling city state that is typically seen in cinema, but a glacial landscape of impersonal buildings and deserted streets where people are more comfortable in social groups, like Anne’s yoga class, than in moments of private introspection. With a preference for largely static set-ups, Pang and cinematographer Charlie Lam achieve a disquieting mood that is complemented by Gabriele Roberto’s exquisite score. Those anticipating the darkly humorous shocks of Pang’s later Dream Home (2010) will have to wait for the reveal at the end, which switches to the perspective of a supporting character to illustrate the conspiracy that the ‘hero’ has been unable to unravel. This sequence is so different tonally, with camerawork and colour scheme that are comparatively giddy, that it almost serves as a condensed alternative version, suggesting another approach that could have been taken to the material. Exodus is an intriguing film that does not leave any loose ends (the ‘frogmen’ are part of Tsim’s backstory), if ultimately too aloof to be entirely satisfying.
(Editor’s note: if you haven’t already, be sure to check out our brief audio interview with director Pang-Ho Cheung, taken during his visit for the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival)