Thursday, October 25, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Exiled

Exiled was easily the best of the festival, even with The Signal playing. I was glad to see it used as the week's Eye Opener because of the Sox game on Monday - I'd be able to watch the end of the game off the DVR after The Vampire Lovers without staying up until 3am - but also because... Well, one of the reasons I like the Eye Opener is because it makes me watch movies I would probably not go out of my way to see and maybe learn something, but once in a while, it's nice to be the guy who can name a couple of Johnnie To movies, compare his style to John Woo's, and generally enjoy a well-choreographed gunfight while the people who love the Canadian independent films are in unfamiliar territory.

And, as much as there was a lot of talk about it being a male-bonding story and what it said about how this kind of man in this sort of hierarchical organization has a hard time making decisions for himself and the way China insists movies which show police corruption be set before the HK/Macao handover... They are really good gunfights. Action scenes in a lot of American movies can be so bad that many people might not realize how good what To does is, but compare what To does here with, say, Paul Greengrass in The Bourne Ultimatum or Michael Bay in Transformers; where To gives us a genuine thrill from showing what's going on, the guys doing the big American action films seem to be trying to hide that they're not as good at their jobs as To.

Anyway, Exiled opens next week (2 November 2008) at the Brattle and runs for a week. There's a good chance it's the best action

Exiled (Fong Juk)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye Opener / Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Johnnie To is one of Hong Kong's busiest directors; by the time you've finished one of his movies, it seems like he's already got another one out. They're generally pretty good, too, but Exiled is something special. It's one of the really great action flicks, the type that others all too often don't even aspire to be.

It starts with two pairs of men visiting an apartment in Macau, just before the handover to China. Blaze (Anthony Wong) and his partner Fat (Suet Lam), then Tai (Francis Ng) and his partner Cat (Roy Cheung) both ask for Wo; the woman who answer says she's never heard of him. They wait. Blaze has been sent to kill Wo; Tai has come to protect him. When Wo (Nick Cheung) does arrive, there's the expected shootout; what's maybe unexpected is that afterward, they put down their guns, help Wo and his wife Jin (Josie Ho) move in, and share a meal. Then they hash out a plan - they'll go to Jeff (Cheung Siu-fai), find one last job for Wo to do, and see that his family gets the money. Of course, "one last job" is movie talk for "things go terribly wrong".

Johnnie To has been making Hong Kong action movies for a long time, and was one of the biggest names to stay stay there when the likes of John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Corey Yuen opted to try their luck in Hollywood when the UK returned the territory to China. This film is a departure for him, not in terms of subject matter - he has made a ton of crime flicks - but style. To is one of those directors that generally doesn't call attention to himself with stylish flourishes but can certainly tell a story as well as anybody else. That invisibility goes out the window with Exiled, and not just because the gunfights have the the loving slow-motion shots and rain of shell casings one would expect from a John Woo movie. To is making something very close to a western here, and a spaghetti western at that. The world often seems empty aside from the bad men confronting each other, and setting the story in Macau rather than Hong Kong lets him take advantage of the Mediterranean architecture of the former Portuguese territory. To even permits himself to get meta for a second - in a moment when the band of outlaws is discussing an escape to Europe around a campfire, one pipes up that he "doesn't know English, but [he does] know Italian."

He's not just engaging in genre pastiche, either. Like To's other crime films that have made it over here, Exiled does a fine job of setting up its story and background quickly, emphasizing the humanity and relationships of its cast of gangster characters, without trying to get the audience to believe that these are admirable people or casting them as romantic outlaws - they're crooks, and though on one hand they're just guys with a nasty job, they also deserve what is coming to them (whether immediately like Wo or down the road). The action is top-notch, with at least four gunfights in the running for best of the year (and a fifth which isn't bad at all). Even if To had opted to shoot in his usual understated style, this would have been a top-tier action movie.

The closest thing to a misstep occurs somewhere around the middle; the aftermath of the second and third gunfights could very well mark the end of the movie, and for a while it's not obvious why the credits haven't rolled yet. What comes after solidifies the Western feel of the movie, as the survivors find themselves outside of the modern city - in the desert, even - with what had seemed like a throwaway comment earlier assuming more importance. Josie Ho's Jin also takes on a more prominent role. In some ways, it's this second half that makes Exiled especially interesting - there have been plenty of stories told about two teams with opposing goals but little personal animosity, but seldom do they spend as much time on the effects of the sacrifices generally reserved for the final act. The closeness of the handover is a constant undercurrent, and while it likely won't reverberate quite so directly for people outside Hong Kong and Macau, the uncertainty of what will change and what will stay the same with new people in charge will be familiar to many.

The film is well-acted, too. Though you might expect Nick Cheung to be the star as Wo, it's Anthony Wong who has the meatiest role. He, of course, has the biggest conflicting loyalties, ordered to kill a long-time friend, but rather than playing Blaze as obviously tortured, Wong makes him resigned: he's trying to be nice about it, and make it work out as well as it possibly can for everyone, but his boss just won't step aside and let things run smoothly. Nick Cheung is quite likable as Wo; he gives the impression of having known the score from the beginning. He gets us to believe that Wo has accepted the necessity of his own murder in order for his wife and newborn son to have a normal life, although he would still really like to live. Simon Yam has a delicious "guest star" role as the crime boss who wants Wo dead. Josie Ho makes Jin an intriguing character in her own right, while always seeming just nervous enough to remind us that these criminal types aren't normal, and that most people should be afraid of them. Everyone else fills their roles almost perfectly.

Johnnie To is one of the world's most reliable action storytellers, so Exiled being good is pretty much expected. This is a master at his peak, well worth a look even if your tastes don't normally lean toward the Asian action.

Also at HBS.

1 comment:

Mr. Fantastic said...

Next to zero comments on this blog and throughout its history.

How does it feel to spend all this time writing for nobody?