Exiled (2006)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-12-17
In a different context the opening scenes of "Exiled" could be used without change as the basis for a satire of the look and feel of Johnnie To gangster movies. The quiet, almost somnolent gangsters and their studied, languid moves take up so much time and space on screen that one feels the desire to tell him "Get on with it". Having watched scenes with the same blunted emotional content, cinematic exactness, character types and even actors from Johnnie To in the past we feel he could, just this once, speed things up. He doesn't, but since we are also treated to gorgeous cinematography showing the sun drenched, whitewashed buildings of this tropical outpost, one of the last bits of the 18th century colonial world still existing in Asia it is well worth watching. To's gangsters are assembling at crossed purposes in a beautifully lit and shot anachronism.

The four men waiting in the street are caught in a tangle of competing loyalties to different bosses, gangs and factions within the gangs who are fighting each other for control as the Portuguese scramble to pile up as much portable wealth as they can to ship back to the edge of Europe on their last journey home. Having returned from someplace abroad, some safe place, Nick Cheung finds Anthony Wong is there to kill him while Frances Ng plans to keep him alive and Josie Ho his dutiful triad wife, watches things play out from a window above. Lam Suet and Roy Cheung are the indispensable and imperturbable assistants, each with single-minded allegiance to his boss, all the more complete because it is unspoken and taken as natural.

There are a few unmistakable parallels in “Exiled”, none more clear than the contrast between the four gangsters settling down for the night in Wo’s apartment after realizing that they are too evenly matched for anything to happen and when the same four bring Wo, now badly wounded, to the home of an illegal doctor. Neither the characters nor the audience knows that having four armed men bedded down in the living room will be the as close to secure that Wo and his family get. Nick Cheung lies in bed with his son while Josie Ho knocks back half a bottle of whiskey. She then attends to her guests, bringing them pillows and blankets so they can be comfortable and asking that they not slaughter the family. While this isn’t an obvious picture of domestic harmony, there is a clear connection between the two families—triad brothers in one room, wife and child in the other. There is a temporary truce between the two sets of gangsters, a time in which they not only help the Wo move his family’s belongings into the apartment but even repair the bullet damage that their armed stand-off had caused.

This is in stark and clear contrast to the scene in which the four now cooperating gangsters bring Wo to the home of an illegal doctor. The doctor lives alone and is having sex with a prostitute when they come to his door. Like Wo’s place the doctor’s apartment is all but unfurnished but in this case it is the way he lives, not just a temporary lack of furnishings. This is not really a home but one of the many way stations that a Macau gangster will pass during his career, a place that the doctor happens to occupy. The ravishing but muted colors on To’s palette during the exterior shots of Wo’s home are replaced by black, white and grey.

The four don’t respect the illegal doctor. They dump his new patient on the couch and ask how much to fix him up. When he tells them it will be $50,000 they respond by saying they will pay $30,000. He hesitates for a moment and then accepts the deal. However they have just a bit more than half the reduced fee, dropping the bills and forcing the doctor to scramble to pick them up. It is clear that when a group of armed men arrive at your home in the middle of the night that one’s specialized medical knowledge isn’t a strong bargaining point. This is really brought home when, during the operation—shown in extreme close up with all the clinical detail of a documentary on surgery for gunshot wounds—someone begins hammering on the door. It is Boss Fay and his cohort, fresh from the battle in which Wo was wounded and with a bullet wound of his own. The negotiations here are much quicker and simpler with Boss Fay (played with his oft used but always effective maniacal edge by Simon Yam) telling the doctor that he isn’t paying him anything and to stop working on the guy on the table and get going on him.

This must inevitably lead to a second confrontation between the Fay and Anthony Wong, who is unnamed and credited only as “Boss Fay’s killer”. Wong’s character had ceased working for Fay as a killer when he accepted, along with the rest of the group, a contract on his life, becoming a killer of instead of for Fay. The philosophical semantics of dual language credits aside, we next see why Johnnie To is so well respected among fans of urban action films. As the very close range gun fight explodes into action, first in the cramped space of the doctor’s surgery and then on its balconies and outside staircases, we see yet another perfectly staged set piece of barely organized violence. Very quick shots lit only by muzzle flashes are cut into scenes that show the chaotic intensity of men killing each other in extremely close quarters. These alternate with longer shots—both in duration and in distance of the camera from the action—of the four protagonists staging a perfectly executed retreat under fire, a Johnnie To trademark that he has used in “The Mission” and other movies. It is an extraordinary sequence, as obviously staged and created on a set as anything one will see on the screen but still enthralling. Johnnie To has captured us again.

Before the last shoot-out he tries to cram a bit too much into the time he has left—much like the unorganized cramming into the handy photo booth by the four comrades in arms, an unnecessary and distracting interruption into the ultraviolent, bloody and fated from the beginning coda. He shows off a bit too much here by using “Red Bull time”-- between the instant that a can of the energy drink is thrown into the air and the moment it hits the ground (while doing a lot of slow spinning) all of the gunmen on both sides have been shot dead.

Reviewer Score: 7