Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Exiled - Review by Robert Duffin

Director: Johnny To
Screenwriters: Kam-Yuen Szeto, Tin-Shing Yip
Runtime: 110 min
Certificate: 15
Release date: 15 June 2007

Since 1980, Hong Kong filmmaker Johnny To has entertained audiences with over 40 feature films, however, outside of the popular ‘Election’ series, he has received very little theatrical attention in the U.K. This week sees the unprecedented wide release of Exiled, his 44th film, set in the Portuguese colony Macau in 1998 just prior to be handed over to Chinese rule.

Wo (Nick Cheung), a former gangster, has retreated to Macau with his wife (Josie Ho) and newborn after a failed assassination attempt on the triad lord Boss Fay (Simon Yam). Two hit men arrive at his door to kill him and two more arrive to save him. A photo reveals that all five hit men were once childhood friends, now separated by different loyalties in the mob. After some deliberation they set off on a gun blazing adventure involving stolen gold and a final confrontation with Boss Fay.

Johnny To has been watching a lot of Westerns, particularly the masterpieces of Sergio Leone and has clearly learned his compositional skills from the master. The opening, a clear homage to Once Upon a Time in the West, sees the hitmen arrive in a long drawn out stand off scene. In near silence they tilt their guns, chomp on cigars and adjust their shades to form iconic poses. In a later gunfight from the first floor windows of a building and a courtyard, To masterfully constructs the fore- and background, framing nearly eight different characters in sharp focus while engaging in battle. Combined with the murky and earthy cinematography of Cheng Sui-keung, it’s masterful stuff.

Yet this doesn’t entirely make up for To’s insistence on eschewing plot and character development. He doesn’t have Leone’s flair for storytelling; in fact he finds it hard to string a story together at all. A mash up of various Western narratives leaves things a little senseless in between the gun ballet. He also lacks the character empathy that often makes up for an abundance of style over substance. For example, Tarantino’s Kill Bill series has little going on upstairs but has identifiable and empathetic character situations. The stylistically similar Exiled lacks this, and by the end it’s hard to care whose corpse has been riddled with bullets.

Exiled features some well choreographed actions sequences, the finale especially, but the rest of the film is so uneven it’s unfortunate that for many cinema goers this will be their introduction to the world of Johnny To.

No comments: