Movie Rewind 2006: EXILED [放‧逐]
Having watched Hong Kong director Johnnie To‘s “Vengeance” last night on streaming video, I was reminded of my intention to complete a post about my favorite To film, EXILED. Although both movies are made up of similar ingredients in their plots, characters, and settings, EXILED succeeds in a way that “Vengeance” does not.
To me, EXILED is the best of To’s Triad-themed movies. Although To’s police-focused movies, such as the Tactical Unit series of 2008-2009, have been more popular at the box office, EXILED best showcases To’s artistic talents.
Set in 1998 in the context of pre-Handover Macau, the film centers on a group of Hong Kong gangsters who who grew up together and joined the same Triad when they became young men. One of them, Wo (Nick Cheung), returns to Macau with his wife, Jin (Josie Ho), and infant son after years on the run from his former boss, Fay (Simon Yam).
Under orders from Fay to kill Wo (because he had tried to assassinate Fay), Blaze (Anthony Wong) shows up at Wo’s flat with a fellow hit man, Fat (Lam Suet) to carry out the command. At the same time, Tai (Francis Ng), accompanied by Cat (Roy Cheung), arrives with the intention of protecting Wo.
The epic gun battle that ensues is a draw; the five end up sitting down to discuss the situation. Backed up by Tai, Wo negotiates with Blaze for time to do one last job together so that his wife and child will have money to live on after he is dead. Blaze reluctantly agrees. The contract killing that the group agrees to do to satisfy this agreement puts them on a collision course with Fay that will pit their loyalty to each other against their duty to their boss.
This theme of conflicting loyalties is convincingly played out through Wong’s character, Blaze. Initially driven to kill Wo by loyalty to Fay and adherence to the unwritten Triad code, he is visibly tormented by the destiny towards which his conflicting loyalty to Wo (based on a brotherhood which has developed over a lifetime of friendship with Wo and the other three men) is driving him. The role of fate in the world of this film is symbolized by a coin toss by which Blaze makes a key decision about where his true loyalty lies.
The theme of brotherhood is largely responsible for the artistic success of this movie. The chemistry of To’s ensemble is what enables the cinematic pastiche of this film to succeed. Building on the characters they developed in To’s 1999 film, “The Mission,” the screenwriters turn the plot of that movie on its head to create the conflict in EXILED. The actors, all long-time To associates, clearly understand their characters’ group and individual dilemmas.
In shooting the screenplay, To draws on genres as disparate as the spaghetti Western, action film, film noir, the existential novel, and medieval chivalric romance. In his New York Times review, Matt Zoller Seitz correctly identifies the factors that hold all of this together: “hard yet subtle characterizations and Mr. To’s refusal to condescend.”
This film is available in Cantonese with English subtitles and in an English-dubbed version.