Monday, February 05, 2007

Exiled (2006)

Exiled (Johnnie To, 2006)
Cantonese Title: Fong juk

If Sergio Leone had lived to this day, witnessing the economics of filming in Asia rather than in the now-expensive tourist havens of Italy and Spain, his output might've looked like Johnnie To's Exiled. Exiled is touted as an unofficial sequel to To' The Mission (1999), a triad film that mixed male-bonding camaraderie with the most eye-popping of bullet ballets. While the film is indeed a reunion-of-sorts for The Mission's actors, the characters are entirely different. Despite that, a tinge of nostalgia accompanies the viewing experience.

A knock on the door opens the film. Tai (Francis Ng) is looking for Wo (Nick Cheung) from a homely woman (Josie Ho) struggling to pretend that she does not know of any Wo. Tai and his pal Cat (Roy Cheung) await as another knock on the door by Blaze (Anthony Wong) and pal Fat (Lam Set) forces the woman to say the same lie. The four men meet uncomfortably in the cobblestone plaza across the woman's apartment; the Sergio-esque tense silence eased only by waves of familiarity and former friendship by the two opposing duos. Wo arrives, and Blaze and Tai follow him to his apartment. Again, To prepares us for a gun fight while evoking Leone; Blaze and Tai prepare their cartridges as Wo reloads his gun. It's Johnnie To-cool; only improved by the fact that the scene was not only perfunctory cool but showcases To's gun fight economics. Each bullet has a target; one lands in Blaze's bullet-proof vest; some in the door floatingly dancing in the rhythm of gunshots. The five thereafter reconcile and relive their younger years, to the wrath of Blaze's boss Fay (Simon Yam).

Macau's distinct mix of Portuguese and Oriental architecture makes the Leone-esqueness of To's filmmaking easier to digest. The score, clearly inspired by the moving melodics of Ennio Morricone, set the action at flawless pace while enunciate the raw sentimentality and emotionality of the film's affairs. While To's actors may not have the soul-stabbing blue eyes and the sun-baked faces of Leone's cowboys, they surely possess the same sense of internal and moral conflict --- just look at Anthony Wong's troubled eyes or Francis Ng's intensity in keeping their crew together and intact. Their struggle inhabit the plentiful gun fights; pumping up the visuals of bodies bursting red with sprays of blood, of sparks from exploding guns, of bullets surely hitting targets, with indelible romanticism.

To enters Peckinpah territory with its visceral depiction of bodily harm and violence. Not only that, Exiled is set in pre-turnover Macau; when gangster lords are modifying their plans to suit the change of the times, when fraternity and loyalty between gang members are forgotten idealisms, when triad members such as Blaze, Tai and Wo are a dying breed. It's the same as the Old West Peckinpah is mourning over in his ultra-violent features. The uncertainty of the times enunciated by these men's reliance on a coin whenever faced by a difficult question of where to go and what to do. It certainly felt like To is lyrically ushering the passing of these men; in a way he only knows possible.

A seemingly extraneous character features in Exiled. A prostitute played by Ellen Chan conveniently appears throughout the feature; first, at the hotel where the crew gather possible jobs; second, at the mercenary surgeon's apartment, and lastly, again, at the hotel during the final showdown. I thought that the character wasn't merely placed there to be a recurring joke, or an embellishment, or as an add-on to the female-deprived film. The film ends with the prostitute being the only one living in the hotel; the gangsters did not survive the turn-over and have, one by one, waved their final gestures of farewell. She carries the bags of gold out the hotel. Is To implying something here? that when all these men of honor have died out, the capitalist whores inherit the earth? Possible.

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