Has there been a director so wildly prolific as Johnnie To in our modern era? Hong Sang-soo comes to mind, albeit occupying a radically different mode of film production than To. Regardless, the last 20-odd years have given us a remarkably fruitful period of consistently good-to-great films, as To has fostered a stable of regular collaborators under his Milkyway Image studio while functioning as producer, writer, and director (occasionally uncredited) for too many projects to count. Broadly speaking, To has alternated romantic dramas with crime/triad pictures, and a smattering of more off-beat, unclassifiable genre pieces in conjunction with writer/director and Milkyway co-founder Wai Ka-fai. It’s tempting to section these disparate projects off from one another, a la Hawks and his “comedies/female vs. action/male” dynamic, but there’s too much conceptual and formal overlap to make such a firm distinction. Instead, it seems most fruitful to take a long view, that is as a progression toward more refinement and even abstraction — to paraphrase an idea that critic Walter Chaw has recently written about Walter Hill, To is a “haiku” director, i.e. one concerned with simplification. Exiled is arguably the purest distillation of this peculiar essence, an action picture operating as pure movement barreling from set piece to set piece and constructed almost entirely out of mythopoetic archetypes.
Frequently pegged as a “sequel” to The Mission (1999), Exiled is not actually a direct continuation (despite the presence of many familiar faces amongst the cast), but instead the middle part of a loose “trilogy,” concluding with Vengeance (2009). All three films portray a kind of zero-sum endgame to the heroic bloodshed genre — a tradition in which bonds of brotherhood are tested in the crucible of combat, often culminating in shootouts and noble self-sacrifice — but which To complicates here by abstracting the genre, burrowing down into poetic visuals and gestures in place of plot and intrigue. The film begins where most might end; former gangster Wo (Nick Cheung) has settled down in Macau with his wife and newborn son. Without warning, two groups of men emerge with conflicting aims: Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet) have been sent by boss Fay (Simon Yam) to kill Wo, while Tai (Francis Nig) and Cat (Roy Cheung) have come to protect him. A shoutout ensues, and once the dust settles the men reach a détente of sorts. They will all help Wo earn some quick money to leave to his wife to care for their baby, and he will then submit to his fate. The gang is back together, but after accepting a job to assassinate local mobster Keung (Gordon Lam), Fay unexpectedly shows up with his own agenda. Chaos ensues, as Fay attempts to kill Blaze for not carrying out the order to kill Wo, while everyone else starts shooting at each other. Eventually, a wounded Fay joins forces with Keung while Blaze, Fat, Tai, and Cat escape with a badly injured Wo. The film carries on like this, as the opposing groups meet, shoot it out with each other, and then disperse to plan their next moves.
For all its backstabbing and unexpected alliances, the plot isn’t particularly important here; famously, To started production without a firm screenplay in place, instead making up scenes as they went along and encouraging improvisation amongst the cast. So while the overall setup feels fairly familiar — mobsters fighting for honor and attempting one last job — the details that accumulate feel more human-scaled. The first action scene ends suddenly, when the men see Wo’s wife begin breastfeeding their baby, and they suddenly drop their guns and begin helping Wo repair the damaged apartment. They then sit down for a home-cooked meal, an important recurring motif in To’s oeuvre. It’s never exactly clear why Fay shows up when he does, other than to keep the plot moving, but it’s his presence that seems to galvanize the men into further action. Another coincidence, or act of fate, finds all the men arriving at the same illegal, back-alley doctor’s office to tend their gunshot wounds. Eventually, Blaze and the crew decide to rob an armored transport carrying gold, which they’ll use to set up Wo’s wife and make their escape. But when they arrive on the scene, another crew is already attempting a robbery, and Blaze decides instinctively to assist the one remaining guard in fending them off. It’s a remarkable moment, these grizzled criminals finding a kindred spirit and silently agreeing that somehow, in some way, he is one of them. The guard is instantly granted access to the gang, so to speak. For his part, To stages some of his most thrilling action scenes, each encounter an attempt at creating an equilibrium between chaos and order. To situates human figures like statues throughout the frame, then dollies the camera around them as if to “activate” the space. Eventually, the shooting starts and the camera picks out individuals to focus on, as To uses edits to carve up the carefully delineated compositions and emphasize the impact of the gunfire. An action sequence in a back alley is almost Tati-like, as a long shot encompasses the entire back of a building with one group of men running down stares to the left of the frame and the other on the right side, shooting at them. It’s wonderfully precise, and a decidedly off-kilter way to stage an action scene.
In retrospect, Exiled feels like an elegy of sorts for not only a genre, but an entire film industry. By 2006, the Chinese government was already meddling in Hong Kong affairs, irrevocably changing its film industry. Large-scale blockbusters were in favor, replete with CGI and fantasy plots that wouldn’t run afoul of mainland censors. Eventually, jingoistic propaganda spectacles like Wolf Warrior would take over the box office, and while To managed a few more films, they became increasingly dark (2012’s Drug War is particularly apocalyptic). Exiled has a downer of an ending too, fitting for the end of an era and nostalgic for a simpler time when men believed in honor and sacrifice not for a country or a government, but for each other. Fred Camper perhaps puts it best: “[To’s] images are sensuous to a fault, and the beauty he finds in faces and objects and surfaces argues for a strong attachment to, not nihilistic distance from, the film’s world. He also sees that world as susceptible to destruction at any instant, which adds a melancholy note to everything we see[…] and which takes us out of stasis and into history.”
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.