It is late 1998, right before the Portuguese handover of Macau to China. Most people are looking for an opportunity to get out, but one banished gangster decides to return home. Though set in Macau, Johnnie To’s Exiled (trailer here) was Hong Kong’s official 2007 submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration. Dripping with style, it is an exemplary representative of the work of action-oriented auteurs like To, whom the Los Angeles County Museum of Art celebrates with their on-going weekend retrospective Hard Boiled Hong Kong.
After crossing Boss Fay, Wo took to the wind. However, he has returned to Macau, hoping to live quietly with his wife and newborn son. That is not likely to happen, if Blaze and his partner have anything to say about. However, two of Wo’s childhood gangster friends also turn up. After a getting to know you shootout, they proceed to help Wo move in. Realizing his options are limited, the fab four help Wo pull one last job for the sake of his wife and son. Bullets will most certainly fly.
Though widely compared to Spaghetti Westerns (particularly due to the romantic looking Portuguese architecture) Exiled really follows directly in the tradition of great samurai films by the likes of Kurosawa and Gosha. Much like those wandering ronin, Wo and his friends often invite fate to chose their path. Likewise, all five adhere to an ironclad code of honor, despite living outside the law.
To is one of the world’s great directors of gunplay, sitting at the (bloody) crossroads of art-house cinema and genre programmers. Throughout Exiled he sets up familiar action premises, but always gives them an inventive twist. Cinematographer Cheng Siu Keung gives it all a rich Miami Vice gloss, befitting To’s uber-cool attitude and technique.
Though not a sequel, Exiled deliberately echoes To’s The Mission, with four mercenary friends trying to save a fifth from an out-of-sorts crime boss, in both cases played by Simon Yam. Though there are many familiar faces from HK cinema (including Mission alumnus Lam Suet, Roy Cheung, and Francis Ng), Anthony Wong blows everyone off the screen as the somewhat older, much more jaded Blaze. He out-Eastwoods Eastwood in the steely-eyed badness department.
A thoroughly entertaining action exercise and a surprisingly wistful Fin de siècle tragedy, Exiled is one of the more artful gangster films of recent vintage. It screens tonight (11/20) at LACMA (where Hard Boiled Hong Kong continues through November 27th) and also streams on Netflix.