2006Director: Johnnie To
Cast: Francis Ng, Anthony Wong, Simon Yam
xiled is Johnnie To's second film to open in the United States in 2007, and not due to any Weinstein-esque stall tactics either. The man regularly completes multiple films per year from his Milkyway Studio in Hong Kong, and also contributed a section of the omnibus HK action film, Triangle, a project which included directors Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark and premiered last month at Cannes.
Chock full of memorable scenes and sequences, Exiled opens with two separate pairs of hit men knocking on a woman's door, asking about a man called Wo. She denies his existence both times and then retreats to the bedroom window on the second floor, where she can keep an eye on both her baby and the street, where her husband is, in fact, set to show up any minute with a truckload of furniture for their new house.
As anticipated, Wo soon arrives home and a claustrophobic shootout commences in and around the small living room, although the animosity seems forgotten the moment after—all hands pitch in to help unpack and make dinner, the only lingering reminder of the earlier violence a hilariously conspicuous bullet hole in the teapot. Whether through old friendships or basic professional admiration, it's clear that the dynamics of the situation are much more complex than simply, "Kill or be killed."
Much of the charm of the film comes from moments like these, when a sense of camaraderie unexpectedly arises between murderous men who ought to be lunging for one another's throats. Just prior to the climactic showdown, for example, the hit men stumble upon a gold heist in which they initially assist the last remaining security guard, then genially convince him to share in the riches and sail off with them into the sunset.
Apart from the notorious meat-grinding scene in Triad Election, the violence here is similarly intense to that in To's earlier 2007 US release, but this uncommon sense of companionship imbues the carnage with a much more comical tone. Both Election and Triad Election depicted a single ruthless boss striving to gain and maintain the top position by eliminating the competition (read: anyone and everyone) by any means necessary, a path to success which would inevitably doom the winner to a reign marked by ceaseless strife. By contrast, the four hit men here, along with Wo, find themselves looking for that big final score after which they can turn over a new leaf, a sentiment that seems almost charitable by comparison. The realization that, despite the constant infighting, they're all in this thing together goes a long way toward making some sense out of what is usually a mindlessly brutal environment.
As the tension rises along with the body count, we're shown that the consequences of underworld bloodshed are not visited only upon the men who cause it but by the women they associate with. Wo's wife, and mother of his child, is furious that he's been recruited by his executioners, holding him in limbo, to come along on a side-job, even though he's trying to secure the black market equivalent of life insurance policy for them by his participation. Her counterpart is an opportunistic prostitute associated with "the bad guys," the arch-rivals of our anti-hero protagonists. These women emerge as nominal winners after the cataclysmic final shootout, although any victory in such a dismal milieu is bound to be a pyrrhic one.
We, on the other hand, all benefit when distributors continue to release foreign films as funny, smart, and thrilling as this. I'm as on board with pretentious art-pap as the next festivalgoer but there doesn't have to be a law against fun, even in imported cinema. Heck, at this pace we could see five more To pictures here by the end of the decade!
Exiled is currently in limited release.
By: Andy Slabaugh
Published on: 2007-06-22