Exiled (Fong juk) (2006)
Directed by Johnny To
Writers: Kam-Yuen Szeto, Tin-Shing Yip
Wo (Nick Cheung), a former gangster, returns to Macau some time after a failed assassination attempt on a triad boss. He comes with his wife (Josie Ho) and newborn. Two hit men arrive at his door to kill him and two more arrive to save him. Wo is armed only with a six-shooter, so to make it fair, one hit man trying to kill him removes some bullets from his gun as does one hit man trying to save him. What could be the reason behind this charity? After an unresolved shootout, the gangsters decide to talk. Both potential killers and saviors help put the apartment back together again and they all cook and share a big meal together. A photo reveals that all five hit men were once childhood pals, now separated by different loyalties in the mob.
That’s just how director Johnnie To’s newest movie begins. What to do with Wo and his family afterward generates the central conflict in the film. Naturally, Boss Fay (Simon Yam), whom Wo once tried to kill, is furious that Wo is still alive and he wants the reluctant Blaze (Anthony Wong) and his partner Cat (Roy Cheung) to correct this as soon as possible. Wo’s one-time partner, the intense Tai (Francis Ng) and his partner, Fat (Suet Lam), stand in the way.
Somewhat ironically, every part except Wo is memorable. The conflicted Blaze owes his loyalty to Fay but his friendship to Wo and Tai. Tai is intense and uncompromising. Cat, a virtuoso with a gun, is nonchalant in taking on all challenges, and Fat is a comic relief skirt chaser. Not only the main ensemble stands out however. Something that lets you know the filmmakers have put a lot of care into their project is when they include many characters who make lasting impressions in small parts. Here is a hotel owner (Cheung Siu Fai) who moonlights as a crime broker, a prostitute (Ellen Chan) who means to get paid and paid well (granted only in the movies do prostitutes have bodies like Ms. Chan), and a carefree sharpshooting cop (Richie Ren) who coasts on life.
The movie’s best set piece takes place in an underground clinic after one of our protagonists has been injured. The action scene that follows is breathtaking in its use of space for suspense and aesthetic framing as the characters conduct a gun battle on a horizontal plane, then a vertical one.
Still, Exiled is compromised by the feeling one gets that Johnnie To has been watching too many westerns. Like in a Sergio Leone movie, all the characters try to strike iconic poses, clad with shades, munching on cigars, tilted gun in hand. And while To might think it’s nice to pay homage to The Wild Bunch, swiping large sections of it just makes Exiled look unflattering in comparison. The theme about loyalty and honor and whether to place it in your friends or social institutions, even corrupt ones, has become a dime-a-dozen since John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, which came out all the way back in 1986, nevermind The Wild Bunch which dates to 1969.