by Del Harvey
Johnnie To’s sequel that’s not quite a sequel is a must-see for fans of action films, no matter where they might hail from.
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Chinese director To Kei-fung, better known to Westerners as Johnnie To, has outdone himself; literally. Exiled picks up the characters Hong Kong action lovers recall from his epic The Mission (1999) and take them to their inevitable conclusion in the most stylized and cinematically perfect way possible.
The Mission was successful largely because the story unfolded as we watched, thus the film drew the audience into its own particular jiang hu, or underworld, and a brotherhood among the assassins was formed as the audience looked on. In the sequel, Exiled, the character’s brotherhood is understood, and the audience is already aware of the way this film world works. This shorthand allows To instill in his characters and plot such a sense of “cool” that a certain iconography emerges, and with it a degree of sentimentality.
For fans of the original, Exiled is just what every good sequel should be. Director Johnnie To has injected it with all the elements of a good Hong Kong actioner: hard-boiled characters, abundant gunplay, and plenty of tough guy humor. Exiled takes the action film element and blasts them solidly into every corner of the widescreen frame, exulting in its macho attitudes while playfully poking fun at itself, if not the oeuvre of “Hong Kong Cinema” as it has come to be known.
The cast from The Mission returns: Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, and Lam Suet play characters who resemble their earlier roles, even though right from the start it is clear that they are somehow different. The biggest difference is that, in Exiled, they all know each other and have a history, and this history transcends whatever terrible situation they are in currently.
In Exiled, we learn that our four characters originally joined the triad along with Wo (Nick Cheung), who was forced to go into hiding following a botched assassination attempt on Boss Fay (Simon Yam). Unfortunately for him, Wo has since resurfaced, taking up residence in Macau along with his wife Jin (Josie Ho), and their newborn son. But Fay still holds a nasty grudge, and dispatches Wo’s old buddies—Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet)—to ensure Wo’s return is short-lived. But there to defend Wo are old friends Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung). We learn that Wo once took a fall for Tai, so Tai won’t let Blaze complete his hit on Wo. When these two opposing pairs of triad enforcers meet up, things get crazy pretty fast, and balletic gunplay, deafening sound effects, and an intense standoff ensues. Which turns into a meal, of course, as all the characters decide they’re getting nowhere fast and figure, what the heck, let’s break for lunch and a group photo, mother and child included. It’s a cultural thing; don’t think about it too much and it actually works.
However, so much commiserating leads to a subtle shift in the dynamic; the group decides to grant Wo’s final wish of securing money for Jin and the baby, and decide to resolve this little conflict later.
While many other directors would not be able to pull off such a stunt, in Johnnie To’s capable hands the far-fetched works. It’s all about unspoken honor, trust, knowing your place in the world, and acting accordingly. This is the beauty of having established these characters in The Mission; these people will live and die for one another, and can grasp their own and each other’s thoughts with near telepathic instinct. These are honorable guys who won’t hold a grudge if they’re assigned to kill one another because, in their world, gangland respect is everything.
But, if that respect isn’t reciprocated, then look out. And, eventually, that’s Boss Fay’s problem, along with a few other egomaniacal character tics. And when Fay pushes these assassins too hard, their honor and loyalty come first. This puts Blaze, Tai, Cat, and Fat on the same side and, just like they did in The Mission, they react like some sort of well-oiled gunplay machine.
It is in these moments where To elevates the action form into something resembling artistic dance, as he uses stillness and calm to offset the slow-motion bullet opera unfolding onscreen. He meticulously stages every action sequence, choreographing each gunfighter so that they are wound up and uncoiled like supple animals performing an age-old ritual with grace and style
And so, with the ultimate conflict set into inexorable motion, Exiled unspools before our eyes in ultra-cool, ultra-tough cinematic brilliance. In fact this film, like other notable To films The Victim, The Longest Night, and A Hero Never Dies, fairly drips with brilliant color tones. The vivid quality of the film heighten the sense of place and surroundings, and elevate the characters from simple gangland dog soldiers into something resembling deities, sort of like those shiny golden dragons.
Unlike his recent uber-dramatic Triad films Election and its sequel, nicknamed “The Godfather films of Hong Kong,” Exiled is one of the best action (read, escapist) films to come out of Hong Kong cinema in some time, and is sure to be embraced and exalted by lovers of the genre.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a filmmaker, and he teaches film at Columbia College Chicago.
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