Film Comment Selects: Exiled (2006)
Johnnie To is a master. There's no more doubt in my mind after seeing Exiled, the second film this prolific HK director made last year (the other, Triad Election, the sequel to '05's Election, opens at Film Forum on April 25.
Screening as a part of the eclectic Film Comment Selects series at the Walter Reade Theatre in Lincoln Center, it's a tightly scripted action film centered around the friendship of four gangsters. It's a pseudo-sequel to 1999's The Mission (a must rent for me now), containing the same cast playing different characters.
Mark Olsen's description in the press notes compares the film to both Leone and Peckinpah, and I'd have to agree with him. The ritualistic action sequences that favor grand operatic gestures over realism are pure Leone, while the fatalistic attitude of a group of men whose moral codes are passe in the modern age is derived from Peckinpah, while the final shootout is a direct homage to The Wild Bunch.
But enough about the past...the film is bracing from the start, as To is a brilliant crafter of opening sequences (see the astonishing long take that opensBreaking News for a further example). Two duos descend upon a humble corner house. In succession they knock on a woman's door, looking for a man named Wo. In the exact same shot-countershot set-up, the woman disavows Wo's existence. Then, in a high angle crane shot, we see the two groups relax in a nearby public garden. Their leaders, Simon Yam and Anthony Wong, share a cigar. Everyone lights up. Then a blue moving truck rumbles into view, and they wordlessly descend upon it, staring at the man inside but allowing him to enter. A cowardly cop drives up, only to be driven off by the pinpoint shooting of a aluminum can sitting near his feet. Yam and Wong follow Wo up the stairs, setting up a classic Leone-esque standoff that begins the story proper.
What's amazing about this opener is how much story and character information is dispensed without saying a word. The woman's stubborness is deepened as the film progresses, eventually becoming a central element. The cop shows up throughout the film, a self-consciously comic counterpoint (he retires at midnight!) to the pistol opera happening around him. The cigar lighting belies a deep friendship between Yam and Wong that is explored and problematized through each succsessive action sequence. The blue truck becomes an escape vehicle, which then breaks down - another motif repeated throughout. The aluminum can returns in the final shootout as an ingenius way to time the quickness of the battle. The economy and grace of his storytelling is astounding (and I've only mentioned a few of the patterns he introduces), especially considering that he produces two films a year.
And it's all anchored by Anthony Wong's face (sitting, above), one seemingly forged for the cinema - with drooping jowls, cavernous pockmarks, and perpetual sunglasses. His stonefaced charisma introduces a note of comic tension into every shot he's in - making Exiled a very funny film among it's many other virtues. He's a brilliant comedian, something which I noticed in the otherwise drab drag racing hit Initial D.
And oh those action sequences. Flowing curtains, doors flying end over end, the unexpected uses of tarpaulin, and luxuriant slow-motion caused some dumbfounded grins to perk up my non-cinematic visage.
Exiled was picked up by Magnolia Pictures, but no release date has been set, as far as I can tell.