Johnnie To resurrects the Hong Kong gangster flick


on August 31, 2007 by Wade Major
The once venerated Hong Kong gangster film has fallen on hard times in recent years. With the exception of Infernal Affairs (and its Oscar-winning remake The Departed ), the house that John Woo built has been but a shadow of its former self for the better part of the last decade, undone by an exodus of name talent and a general economic malaise afflicting the Hong Kong industry at large. And yet, through it all, the prolific Johnnie To—director of no fewer than 20 films since 2000—has stood strong, churning out memorable gems like PTU and Fulltime Killer among a host of lesser, forgettable efforts. With Exiled , however, To vaults himself to another level entirely, delivering a true classic that deserves to be heralded alongside the very best works of Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark.

The setting is Macau, 1998, where a renegade gangster named Wo (Nick Cheung) has returned with his wife and infant child to face the consequences of having betrayed Boss Fay (Simon Yam) several years earlier. Fay has dispatched the trusted Blaze (Anthony Wong) and a crew of henchmen to dispense his justice, but Wo's former co-conspirators, including Tai (Francis Ng), for whom he took the original rap, also appear to defend him.

It's a classic standoff of the type typically reserved for bullet-riddled movie climaxes, but To's tack is more existential, bringing the former colleagues together under an agreement that their differences will be resolved only after they have done the honorable thing and secured enough money to care for Wo's wife and child after he is dead. But that one, simple deviation from the plan proves fateful as the entire group is soon on the run, pursued by another squad of Boss Fay baddies who will stop at nothing to terminate the traitors.

Working from a deviously clever script by Szeto Kam-yuen and Yip Tin-shing, To wrestles with a host of issues not uncommon to Hong Kong crime film fans—loyalty, honor, fate and courage—though he is careful not to overly wallow in what previous films forged as a kind of Triad Taoism. These men are less idealistic than practical, motivated not by some obscure set of cultural maxims but by the simple fact that they were once all friends. Whatever the film's subsequent twists, turns and unexpected reversals, at no stage do the characters devolve into structural puppets. Each man is both sympathetic and reprehensible in his own way, affording To the opportunity to more deeply explore what is arguably the most compelling set of characters ever featured in any of his films.

None of this ought suggest that To has entirely abandoned technique in favor of character—the film still affords ample opportunity for artful mayhem, notably an absolutely dazzling shootout in a black market clinic that easily compares with anything from such Woo classics as The Killer or A Better Tomorrow .

Fans of To's earlier 1999 film The Mission will enjoy seeing a reassembling of that film's major cast members, but all such similarities must end there. For Exiled is more than simply To's best film to date—it's the best pure Hong Kong gangster film since Hard-Boiled and one of the very best films, period, of 2007.

Whether this will result in an overall resurgence in the genre is anyone's guess—at this stage it may not even be relevant. To has made two more films since, and may have already moved on to bloodier—or less bloody—pastures. What's undeniable is that Johnnie To has, at long last, emerged as the equal of his very best contemporaries, no longer simply one of Hong Kong's most prolific filmmakers but one of its finest.
Distributor: Magnolia
Cats: Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Nick Cheung, Josie Ho, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet, Richie Jen, Simon Yam and Lam Ka Tung
Director/Producer: Johnnie To
Screenwriters: Szeto Kam-yuen and Yip Tin-shing
Genre: Action; Cantonese-language, subtitled
Rating: R for strong violence and some sexual content
Running time: 113 min.
Release date: August 31, 2007 NY, September 7 LA/Chi/SF, September and November exp.
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