Ah, the Hong Kong action film; one of the most celebrated and entertaining forms of cinema since the advent of the wuxia martial arts films of the late ‘60s through the ‘70s, evolving into the heroic bloodshed and gun fu films of the ‘80s through the early-to-mid ‘90s. Thanks to auteurs like John Woo and Tsui Hark, the latter style has become almost synonymous with the genre to Western audience, usually defined by standard cops-and-robbers plotlines exploring deeper themes of friendship and loyalty amid chaotic, well choreographed gunplay whereby the characters tend to fire off more rounds than are realistically available, enduring more wounds than is humanly possible, with just a few bits of comedy thrown in for good measure. While the genre somewhat fizzled out in the latter half of the ‘90s as filmmakers started making their way to the States and elsewhere abroad, during which time Hong Kong was reacquired by Mainland China, the industry found new blood but has only marginally attained comparable levels of success. Amid this throng of unfamiliarity, Johnnie To continues to thrive. Revered for such action extravaganzas as The Heroic Trio, Running Out of Time, and A Hero Never Dies as well as the A Moment of Romance trilogy and comedies like Justice, My Foot!, one of To’s most acclaimed films, 1999’s The Mission, helped revitalize interest in the Hong Kong action genre.
Seven years later, you came along, To’s masterpiece of heroic bloodshed. You, Exiled, are something of a thematic sequel to The Mission, but in so many ways you could easily be taken as a literal one as well, not only featuring many of the same actors but presenting a storyline that could have very well taken off right where your predecessor left us. In The Mission, five killers are hired to protect a Triad boss, becoming a highly proficient team until the youngest member sleeps with the boss’ wife, thereby making him a target for the primary team member. Unwilling to break the bonds of friendship, the final hit is staged so that the transgressor is spared. It eschewed the usual components of excessive slow motion and spectacular stunts to make for a concise, well produced action piece. You, Exiled, present a similarly succinct storyline about five childhood friends – one is on the run for the attempted murder of their Triad boss, two are sent to kill him, while the other two are sworn to protect him. From the very beginning, the bonds of friendship once again prove stronger as the five decide to embark on one last job together to obtain money enough to help the target’s wife and child escape before his execution. What follows is a violent (and occasionally humorous) tragedy in the Shakespearean sense, and a film that surpasses in virtually every detail.
Above all, your action set pieces must be praised. Featuring a handful of extravagant sequences, you immediately display a far more theatrical, though no less energetic, brand of violence, chockfull of spattered clouds of blood and smoke. The spectacle is usually presented not in the fluid, exaggerated ballet-like motions of the characters as John Woo would present in The Killer or Hard Boiled, but rather in the environment as the participants use their surroundings quite effectively, from a circular multi-tiered restaurant to flourishes of hospital curtains. Indeed, the first 20 minutes of the film features a shootout in which three characters fire amid an unhinged door spinning in midair. As in The Mission, the influence of Sergio Leone is apparent, particularly as empty soda cans are fired in demonstration of superior accuracy. Indeed, a scene in which a character is disarmed by shooting his weapon away from him mirrors a similar sequence in For a Few Dollars More; another indication of how influences play off of each other in cinema, since Leone was as much a devotee of Eastern filmmakers as the current crop idolize him in return. As well, the excellence of lighting and cinematography simply can not be overstated; it’s just that damn good throughout, showing an expert sense of mood and atmosphere that only serves to accentuate the action as well as the emotional content, of which you are certainly in no shortage.
Not unlike The Mission, the performances of your actors compromise a significant amount of your appeal. Once again, Anthony Wong and Francis Ng play off of each other wonderfully, but whereas Wong was cold and calculating throughout the previous film, here he presents the quiet anguish of a man torn between loyalty to his lifelong friend and his employer. As well, Ng plays with intense brashness, while at the same time never impulsive, clashing formidably with Wong to create a fiery emotional conflict that permeates throughout and only serves to accentuate the sadness of Wong’s character. With Suet Lam and Roy Cheung also returning from The Mission, again paired off in support of Wong and Ng respectively, the team demonstrates a much more deeply rooted camaraderie that has stood the test of time. This bond is excellently portrayed in such scenes as the moving in/dinner scene early in the film when the team, reunited with their friend/target, enjoys an evening of once again being old friends, culminating in the ever iconic group photograph that speaks a thousand words of solidarity. Other notable performances include Simon Yam as the vicious and maniacal antagonist; already renowned for his eccentric and incendiary roles, there is an almost predictable cruelty to his brand of villainy that is perhaps best displayed when he states laughingly, “I am crazy, but I’m not stupid.” As the target, Nick Cheung plays with unusual calm that stands in contract, almost defiance to the violence around him, yet never once denying his fate. Fate, along with redemption, is also among your most prevalent themes. Each of the protagonists has his or her moment in acceptance of what is to come, facing it with an almost disaffected sense of acceptance that ultimately leads to their salvations.
Quite simply, Exiled, not enough good can be said about you and the manner in which you weave so many deceptively simple themes together with such brutal yet subtle symbolism, given weight by the strength of the performers, the quiet lushness of the musical score (by Dave Klotz and Guy Zerafa), the brilliant lighting and cinematography creating an almost chiaroscuro ambience, and the lavishly executed action sequences. With you, Johnnie To has fashioned not only a marvelous action film, but a saddening drama that, quite honestly, left me in tears at the end.