There's a knock at Mrs Wo's new front door. She puts down the baby and walks slowly downstairs to see who it is. When she opens up, a stranger asks for her husband. She instinctively knows this can't be good and tells the stranger that he's got the wrong house. He knows she's lying and tells her that he'll wait outside. He walks 'round the front of the house and stands waiting with another man. Soon, there is another knock on the door and she sees this time another man, his eyes obscured by his shades, who also asks for her husband. He too doesn't believe her and chooses to wait for her husband near the other two men. When her husband arrives with their furniture, he invites two of the men in whilst their compadres wait outside. Wo and his two visitors load their guns with six bullets each, his wife clings to their baby and their front room starts to echo to the sound of gunfire.
It is an opening that owes far more to spaghetti westerns than gangster movies, and from this brilliant beginning Exiled continues to draw you in to a very improbable story of gangsters, fate, and a strange kind of honour. If Sam Peckinpah had been a Buddhist, then this film would have been very close to his heart with its use of slowmo and balletic action allied to a story of unusual brotherhood. While the story begins with two pairs of gangsters sent after Wo, soon surprising bonds are formed between the assassins and their target, and a pact is made to ensure that his wife and child survive his eventual assassination. The five find themselves lost in a triad turfwar and they find their old gang allegiances lost as they all fight for survival from their old boss and his new ally.
In the way that other directors have mined their ability to deliver a good genre movie in order to actually do something a little deeper, so does Johnnie To imbue his films with social and moral commentary alongside the blood and the bullets. The Election films have come to represent recent history in Hong Kong, Breaking News is a film about the media mad world we all live in, and Exiled is a film which is really about bonds of the spirit, chance, circumstance and coincidence. It is also one of the best Asian films about brotherhood since the heyday of John Woo with its five unlikely fellow travellers thrown together by moral duty and events. In fact the film resembles, at times, the mystical journeys of a Tarkovsky or a Jodorowsky in its contempt for prosaic plot and setting.
Abandoning little other than the characters' causation and making up for verisimilitude with stunning photography and mise-en-scene, Exiled is the kind of film where setting ceases to matter and setpieces are strung together for themic effect rather than linear sense. As the five run from their pursuers, they shake their heads and decide everything other than loyalty on the flip of a coin. Fortune brings them together and events lead them from one test to another, and what started as improbable chivalry becomes deepest commitment. Like other films which abandon place and context for the pleasure and meaning of the journey, this can seem rather disconnected or chaotic and some will struggle to appreciate what is eventually a philosophical action film.
For me though, I adored Exiled. An action film where exigencies are shown as irrelevant and the predictable cinematic world of gangster psychology is forgotten. It is a film where the man sent to kill you helps you move house, a film where you give your husband his funeral pyre in your living room, and a film where all effort leads back to the beginning and where the material is certainly less important than new life. People find gold by mistake and people forsake escape for an obligation; it is energising to find a film which so subverts the gangster genre and so satirises plot. It all boils down to men fighting over nothing and killing themselves, laughing at the nonsense of it all as they breath their last.
Truly exceptional. A film that deserves to be classified with Melville's Le Samourai or Woo's The Killer as a gangster film of the spirit.
After their less than excellent effort on Election Volume 2, I am happy to report that Optimum have done better here. The transfer is beautiful, clean and sharp. It is a testament to the superb cinematography and lighting, that the contrast and colour here are almost perfectly judged and every shadow is allowed to count. Flesh tones are strong and vivid, and best of all we get removable subs!
In terms of the audio tracks, the disc comes with stereo and 5.1 options. Both options are well mastered and imperfection free in terms of distortion or hiss, and the 5.1 track possesses an excellent subwoofer track which gives the gunfire quite a bit of pep. The surround is mixed well and the effects are very definitely three dimensional sounding with the dialogue mixed above the score and carnage at all times, although the treble is a little dull on occasion. Still this sounds rather good and shows off the excellent music from Dave Klotz and Guy Zerafa which is a little bit Paris, Texas and a little bit Radiohead.
The disc menu features scenes from the film spliced together and animated in yellow and red. The only extra feature is at 12 minute long making of with footage of production and filming along with To and his cast discussing fate. To says that he was a lot freer in directing this film and that he deliberately aimed for a more romantic edge, and Simon Yam celebrates the male characters' rediscovery of innocence. It's a slight featurette with little insight and lots of talk.
Released in Asia in 2006, only to make it to our screens this year, Exiled is my film of the year. Possibly the best film of To's career, The Mission runs it close, and well worth your interest. Optimum have done a decent job at a good price. Simply terrific.
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