Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Exiled (2006)

I won't pretend to be any great expert on Hong Kong cinema, although I have seen probably several hundred Hong Kong movies over the years, sufficient to know who I like and what I like. It seems to me that it is no longer the hotbed of innovation that it was before 1997 and the reunification with China. Despite some international successes like "Infernal Affairs", the source for Scorsese's "The Departed", and the comedies of Stephen Chow, too many of its recent movies have been draggy affairs. Part of the problem is that so many of the Hong Kong stars of the 80s and early 90s have found work on the international scene, both in the U.S. and in China. I'm thinking here of Jet Li, Sammo Hung, Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, the always-cool Chow Yun Fat, and of course the megastar of the bunch, Jackie Chan. Only the latter has retained some nostalgic connection to the birthplace of his fame and still occasionally produces or stars in locally-made flicks. And I must say I miss the kung-fu extravaganzas with their wonderful wirework, the colourful fantasies, and the ghost stories with their hopping vampires.

However, Hong Kong can still produce some engrossing cinema and director Johnnie To is responsible for a good share of it. This film was produced after his two popular "Election" movies, but is a far more cinematic outing than those semi-political films. Set in Macao shortly before the Chinese takeover, a triad boss played by the ever-so-slimy Simon Yam (who's been a Hong Kong star for yonks) wants to establish himself in this territory. He dispatches two of his assassins to murder a former gang member, Nick Cheung, who has exiled himself there and who is trying to find a new life with his wife, Josie Ho, and his infant son. Two other assassins take it upon themselves to protect him, but when the blazing shootout comes in Cheung's cramped apartment, the five men who share a past history finally put down their guns and share a meal in the spirit of friendship and common values. This is just the first in a series of increasingly fierce gunfights which form the focus of the film with their balletic violence; the meandering storyline comes a distinct second. Think of a latter-day John Woo movie without the poetry. The theme here is loyalty and brotherhood.

The ensemble cast does not feature any big names, but brings together a group of character actors who have been gracing Hong Kong cinema for years and most of whom also appeared in To's earlier movie "The Mission" (1999). The standout performance is from the group's leader Anthony Wong, who is ably supported by Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, and Suet Lam (an absolutely perfect monicker for a rather fat actor). In the course of helping their old friend with one last job to provide for his soon-to-be widow, they manage to antagonise the slightly comic Yam, interrupt a gold hijacking, and face the final shootout as one man. The strong action sequences are interlaced with humourous hi-jinks, heavy drinking, and would-be womanizing. In the end we really do care for these firm friends who live by their own code of honour.
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