After This Our Exile (Director's Cut) Review

Having not made a film for 17 years, Patrick Tam’s return to directing with the After This Our Exile comes like an invigorating breath of fresh air to a stagnant Hong Kong film scene that is becoming increasingly reliant on the formulaic blockbuster action-crime thriller. A simple family drama with no doubt autobiographical elements, and set in Malaysia, it’s the personal nature of the film more than anything that sets After This Our Exile apart from the usual Hong Kong genre material, and which has no doubt contributed to the numerous prestigious awards the film has garnered from the main Asian film festivals.

As the original Chinese Fu Zi title indicates, the film is primarily concerned with the father-son relationship and the simplicity that this title implies is borne out in the manner that it is seen largely from the perspective of a young child. The child here is known as Boy (Gow Ian Iskandar), and he is caught in the middle of a rocky relationship between his father Sheng (Aaron Kwok) and his mother Lin (Charlie Yeung) who are not legally married. One suspects that the reason the marriage was not legitimised has probably a lot to do with Sheng’s gambling problem. Being somewhat violent and short-tempered and owing a lot of money to local gangsters, Sheng often has to go on the run or into hiding and wasn’t even present when Boy was born.

It’s a situation that has become too much for his mother Lin. She has another lover who promises her the opportunity of a better life, but leaving a violent man is not easy and leaving her son behind is another problem since Boy has a stronger bond with his father. Nevertheless, when an opportunity presents itself, Lin makes her escape. With no mother and a father on the run, struggling to pay his rent and pimping for a prostitute he has met (Kelly Lin), the young Boy has to cope for himself rather a lot, and doesn’t exactly receive the right sort of guidance from his father.

The story is a rather straightforward one and not particularly illuminating on the relationship between father and son, nor perhaps is it intended to be. Rather, somewhat like the recent Malaysian film Rain Dogs, After This Our Exile is a kind of coming-of-age film, a look back on a childhood lacking a proper upbringing, an absence of proper parental guidance and the negative influence of a father-figure who is not the strong role-model that a young child needs to direct him on the path of life. The evocation of mood and location consequently becomes the most important aspect of the film and Patrick Tam has Mark Lee Ping Bing - the cinematographer for Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wong Kar-wai and Tran Anh-hung – to brilliantly depict the setting without imitating or appropriating the other director’s distinctive styles. While there are certain similarities, in place of languid pans and minimal scripts, Tam’s editing matches the dynamic of the film’s script, dialogues and situations with rapid cuts to describe the violent outbursts of Sheng, with ellipsis and flowing movement to depict some sex scenes that are much more intense than we are accustomed to see in a mainstream Hong Kong film, bringing it all together to be representative from a particular perspective of childhood memory.

After This Our Exile is not a perfect film – the characterisation isn’t particularly deep, the situations occasionally feel contrived and there are lulls and a certain amount of repetition in the almost three hour running time of the film (the film was trimmed back for its original Hong Kong theatrical release, but is presented in full here) - but there is also much to admire. The performances are strong – Aaron Kwok in particular playing against the more glamorous type of role he is better known for in films like Divergence - the evocation of mood is impeccable in the hands of Mark Lee Ping Bing, there is good use of music, and the editing by Tam (celebrated for his editing work on films such as Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time and Election no less) carries it along marvellously with an appropriate tone and sense of pace. Moreover, it’s a film that is admirably lacking in calculation, telling the story it wants to tell rather than the one the Hong Kong film-going audience might expect, and consequently it touches on real emotions and passions, and succeeds in arousing them in the viewer as well.

After This Our Exile

, the Original Full-length Director’s Cut is released in Hong Kong by Panorama. The film is presented across two dual-layer discs, with the extra features included on a third disc. The set is in NTSC format and is not region encoded. The set is nicely packaged, the fold-out digipak held within a sturdy slipcase which also contains a collector’s booklet of moody stills from the film.

The video transfer is very good, but inconsistent. Spread across two dual-layer discs to make the most of the High Definition master, it ought to look much better than it does here however. The image is certainly sharp and shows reasonably good detail even in wider shots, while the print is fairly clean with only minor white flecks of dustspots occasionally visible. Blacks however are rather flat and colours lack that extra fineness of definition that might be expected. The image also appears to be interlaced. On a progressive display this shows the usual problems with combing and motion blurring, the image pulsating throughout. The flickering image also reveals some distracting banding and pixilation issues, particularly on backgrounds. The interlacing problem isn’t quite so evident on a tube display, but is still is noticeable in pans and movements that are less than smooth and fluid. The need to change discs to view the whole film consequently does not seem justified by any corresponding improvement in quality, particularly since the point where the film is divided does not feel like a natural break.

The audio tracks are all strong, the original Cantonese track presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS options, with the addition of an obligatory Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 dub. The original Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is excellent, distributing the sound well with good tone, clarity and ambience, but the DTS mix, more than just being louder, has that extra edge with a slightly deeper, rounder tone.

English subtitles are optional and in a clear white font. Both the film and the extra features on Disc Three are all fully subtitled. The translation is generally good, but there are the usual minor flaws and dropped words – few of which will cause any problems.

There are no commentaries or deleted scenes, but the extras on Disc Three are nevertheless all worthwhile, and more importantly, they are all English subtitled.

A Conversation between Patrick Tam and Film Scholar Law Kar (34:08)
An interesting conversation, this interview covers the director’s background well, his working methods and his intentions for the film. A film lecturer in Malaysia now, the script for After This Our Exile was written by one of his students and made during holiday leave from his teaching duties. The director covers the choice of settings and locations, the employment of photography, music and editing, talks about the actors and goes into detail on a couple of scenes and what he tried to achieve through them.

Exclusive Interview with Aaron Kwok (12:37)
The actor talks about his relationship with the director, his analysis of Sheng, his preparation for the role and how he and Tam worked together at portraying his character on the screen.

Making of After This Our Exile (27:17)
A little over-long and repetitive, the making of shows the director working on set, shooting and reshooting and getting the young Gow Ian Iskandar to perform. There are some interview snippets and some fun with the younger children on the set to lighten the tone.

The remainder of the extra features consist of a Poster and Photo Gallery of 48 images, a fabulous Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (1:33) and a rubbish International Theatrical Trailer (1:58) made up solely of stills and the song You Are My Sunshine, and a Director’s Filmography, with listings of awards received.

The merits of After This Our Exile and its winning of all the major awards at the Taipei Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards will no doubt continue to be hotly debated, as will the question of whether the relatively thin story can be sustained by the full-length Director’s Cut. At the very least however, Patrick Tam deserves all the awards and praise he has received for going against the trend for formulaic glossy Hong Kong crime movies and daring to make a personal film with smaller scale ambitions. It’s not perfect, but the fact that this simple and affecting drama has touched an appreciative audience and been rewarded with critical acclaim is a promising sign indeed for the Hong Kong film industry. Panorama would appear to have pulled out all the stops with a 3-DVD boxset, sourcing a High Definition transfer and spreading the full Director’s Cut of the film across two of those dual-layer discs, but incredibly the company retains their practice of interlacing their transfers and thereby undoing all the effort that has gone into this otherwise fine package.

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