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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

September 11, 2007
Rating: 7/10

Johnnie To, along with fellow auteurs John Woo and Tsui Hark, has been integral in forging the concept of "Hong Kong" cinema (or simply HK, as film heads call it). The HK film movement is characterized by gritty, highly-stylized films that center around action and, more specifically, gunplay. Within the frames of work by To and others, time and physics cease to matter as weapons are un-holstered; highly trained actors tethered to elaborate wire rigs often carry a gun in each hand, flying through the air with explosions and swirling debris filling the background like massive, violent, cinematic snow globes.

If John Woo, the celebrated Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II director, is to be considered the trailblazer of the genre (and rightly so), then Johnnie To is unquestionably the future of HK cinema. To's films have evolved from mindlessly cheesy action schlock (The Heroic Trio) to bona-fide compelling cinema (Fulltime Killer). Whereas Wu is known for setting his action scenes in large, open areas, To prefers the intimate space of smaller locations like apartments. As with many of the top Asian cinematic artists, To knows that strict stylistic lines can stifle a film, and that mixing comedy, drama and action into one movie is the key to success for HK cinema. Audiences need to see a film's characters in the full range of experience and, squaring them up in a gritty, gun to gun standoff one minute and having them be jovial with each other, having a good laugh, the next, To accomplishes exactly that.

To's latest release, Exiled is a sweet throwback to classic HK movies like Hardboiled and The Killer, films that seek to place their characters into the most dangerous - not to mention gorgeous - locations possible before the action starts, the plot taking a backseat to setting and drama. There is a palpable machismo, lots of dirty looks, and wind-whipped trench coats to keep the action heavy, guns shooting an impossibly high number of rounds before a clip is spent. When a bullet, undoubtedly fired off in a dashing mid-maneuver shot, does manage to hit its mark, the worst is usually a painful flesh wound that can be grimaced through as the mle continues.

Set in the rural agricultural area around Macau, Exiled is a new take on the traditional bad boy-gone-good story. Wo, a former gang member, has managed to escape the criminal underworld and establish a peaceful civilian life with his wife and newborn child. There obviously wouldn't be much of a story if Wo could leave the woods so easily; upon his return to Macau, a pair of Wo's former friends (Blaze and Fat) come to kill him. To compound the storyline, a second pair of Wo's former friends/associates (Tai and Cat) are hot on the trail of the assassins, seeking to stop Wo's execution. On an inevitable collision course, the five gunmen meet in a very European-looking villa where Wo resides.

Any review of Exile would be remiss if it failed to note Sergio Leone's influence on To's style, which is rather blatant. Like Leone, To employs Mexican standoffs, squinting anti-heroes and guns that sound like cannons. The outlaws begin a gun battle that, among other things, features a door, blown off it's hinges and spun end to end in midair by the barrage of bullets - all shown in slow-motion, of course. When the smoke clears there is not a single casualty, and the group ultimately reconvenes over a dinner, sharing food from the same bowls and nostalgically recounting old tales. Just to fill out the emotional color wheel, To throws in a sentimental scene of the men taking a group photograph that is reminiscent of a photo the five took together as children.

With the characters introduced, the rest of Exile deals with the traditional warrior themes of friendship and loyalty. Even though his friends refuse to kill Wo, through a series of coincidences and poor choices he ends up dead anyway. Regardless, the mob boss who ordered the hit on Wo is now out for the blood of Wo's friends, who did not complete their mission. To boot, Wo's widow is also out for revenge against the four friends of her slain husband. With their backs to the wall, the four criminals escape Macau and plan a heist that will secure enough gold to keep them flush with cash for the rest of their lives, not to mention nobly providing for Wo's widow and child. As with most criminal plans in the movies, human error comes into play and soon the four are faced with an impossible dilemma: they can do what is right and fight a seemingly losing battle, or they can take the money. and their lives, and run. It goes without saying that the film's finale is chock-full of booze, bullets and badassitude.

Exiled is certainly one of Johnnie To's better films. That said, it relies too heavily on melodrama and has little energy between shootouts; it lives and dies between the time the guns are drawn and later returned to their holsters. The film's script and acting are trivial to the genre, but their lack of importance also tends to make the films much lighter and in many cases cornier, which is often intentional (see the flying pop can gag). The action in Exiled is better than in, say, a Sergio Leone western, but, unlike Leone, in Exiled when main characters die the audience hardly cares. If you are in the mood for some amazing gunplay connected by some, less than amazing, cheese filled interludes, Exiled might be right up your alley.

SEE ALSO: www.exiledfilm.com
SEE ALSO: www.magpictures.com

--
Jon Burke
A contributing writer and a Chicago resident who will not be goaded by LASs editor into revealing any more details about his potentially sordid affairs.

See other articles by Jon Burke.

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