It would be easy to dismiss Hong Kong director Johnny To’s Exiled as yet another Asian gangster film dealing with themes of friendship, honor and loyalty. One could similarly dismiss High Noon as a just another Western that climaxes in a gun fight. But doing so in either case would be doing the film in question a large disservice.
Wo (Nick Cheung), a former Hong Kong Triad hit man, has fled to Macau following his failed attempt to kill his boss, Boss Fay (Simon Yam). Fay dispatches two hit men (Anthony Wong and Suet Lam) to kill Wo, but they are intercepted by two other men (Francis Ng and Roy Cheung) from Fay’s organization who want to protect Wo. All five men were once friends before having to place their duty as members of Fay’s crime family first. Discovering that Wo has a wife and newborn son, the five search for a way out of their predicament that will satisfy both honor and friendship.
Although Exiled finds To reunited with many of the cast and crew of his landmark 1999 film The Mission and explores some of the same themes, it is in no ways a sequel to the earlier work. Instead, Exiled plays out as a spaghetti western transplanted to the Asian Pacific rim. Long takes of silence pass as combatants silently take each other’s measure before violence erupts in a blaze of gunfire.
As perhaps the premier director of action working in Hong Kong today, To’s work here defines the category of what film fans have dubbed “bullet ballet.” He establishes the geography of an action scene skillfully and subtly, so that when the mayhem erupts the audience can follow it with ease. Knowing that tried and true filmmaking is the best, To keeps his camera work fluid. Combined with editing that doesn’t cut away before one can make sense of the shot, To’s camera work has an energy and a rhythm that enhance the action set pieces rather than distracts in the way that much of the handheld shakey-cam use in Hollywood productions does. Through careful choreography, camera work and editing, To’s gun fights take on a graceful, almost elegant, quality. The confusion potential of a multi-sided gunfight in a restaurant, complete with several betrayals, plays out cleanly, allowing the audience to follow the action and reversals easily.
That’s not to say that To spoonfeeds his audience. At first, there is nothing that overtly indicates the past friendship that the five gangsters used to share. It is only through subtle characterization between the group and a glimpse of one photo that the film sketches very lightly this past. There are very few actual details of what there friendship was, only that it existed and that it still impacts the decisions they are still making today.
Along with longtime collaborator, cinematographer Cheng Siu Keung, To has chosen a palette of browns and earth tones, moving his characters in and out of shadows. Even during the few scenes set during the day, the photography is shot through with beams of golden sunlight. The overall effect suggests twilight. As the film is set just a little over a year before Macau and Hong Kong were to change over from being European colonies to part of the People’s Republic of China, To seems to be using it as a visual metaphor for the sun setting on the way of life that the gangsters know.