It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the films of Johnnie To. In fact, despite their being recommended to me for quite some time, I still had not taken the time to look into this newer face in the Hong Kong action scene and it wasn’t until I caught a screening of Vengeance that I decided to finally make the commitment to more. Honestly, I’d even been a bit lukewarm on the genre in general, being one of the only people in the film geek world to not have ever gotten into John Woo’s earlier work from the 1980s, but when I finally got to Exiled recently, the switch finally came on completely.
Exiled is simple and effective, dark and gritty, and above all stylish. What Johnnie To managed with this film was to transplant the broad and sweaty feel of the Italian westerns of the past into the cramped streets and even some more familiar sprawling countrysides of Macao. To me, Johnnie To accomplishes something by melding violent gunplay into stories of almost-brotherly bonds that John Woo missed in his classic The Killer for instance. To’s movement from abstract action such as volleying a door with a hail of bullets to understated moments around a dinner table speak much more to me than the melodrama sandwiched between gunfire that Woo left me with. Sure the bonds are there with Woo’s film, but I felt it was handled with a much heavier hand there. To gives us a similar structure but with style spread throughout the film, not just when the bullets are flying.
In this film as well as the handful of others of To’s I have seen, we get a group of leads that are more or less soft spoken, mysterious, and brooding, but very loud with their weaponry, as if these weapons are doing the arguing for them. The story almost becomes secondary, and if I were to nitpick, I’d say the overall plot is the weak point. It is straightforward and moves from point A to point B without issue, but is not ultimately very compelling. It is the tension built between the characters on their unusual journey that really keeps one’s attention.
Anthony Wong is a standout here. If the comparison need be made, his character Blaze would be the Man With No Name from the Leone westerns. I’ve seen Wong more than once play this character who struggles with the choice of doing what he has been commanded to do versus doing what he really feels is right. I felt he does a fabulous job subtly portraying this turmoil he goes through. Then on the other side of the coin you have a very tense and boisterous performance by Simon Yam as Boss Fay who rules over everyone and everything he comes across. Boss Fay is a man to be feared, and Yam’s sweaty portrayal of the gangster is spot on. All in all, Exiled quickly became my favorite film by Johnnie To, and perhaps my favorite in this choreographed gunplay genre. At the very least, I would certainly recommend Exiled as a jumping off point into these films if you have been a holdout for whatever reason. A tremendous action film, do yourself a favor and track it down.
Review by Alex at Assorted Loaf