Back in the mid-00s Asian cinema was doing very well on the international market. Hong Kong was still recovering from a rough patch though and had a little trouble finding its niche, but when people like Johnnie To finally started to excel it didn't take long for others to notice. Exiled was one of those films that put To in the spotlights. I liked it a lot back then, but never really got around to watching it a second time. Twelve years later, it's finally up for a rewatch.
For four years ('06-'09), Johnnie To would be on a mad winning streak. Every film he released turned out to be something special, willful and memorable. He fully committed to the crime genre, developed a unique signature and worked with a well-oiled production machine of crew and actors, all of them very aware of To's expectations. From that period, Exiled is one of the films that sticks out even further than most, though apparently it took me a second viewing to realize that. While I definitely liked the film the first time around, it got even better on second view.
Exiled is crime cinema at its purest. To took a basic crime flick and cut out all the excess and cruft, stuff that normally bogs down films like these. Character backgrounds are razor thin, dialogues are minimal and the plot itself is merely a tool that takes you from one scene to the next. It creates a lot of extra elbow room to blow up typical crime elements, giving them the treatment they deserve. This of course slows down the pace and if you have something against crime and/or violent cinema this is probably not the film for you, but if you like dark yet honourable killers touting their guns, prepare for 110 minutes of pure bliss.
When Wo returns to Macau, Fay (Wo's old boss) isn't too happy with the situation. He sends a couple of killers to sort things out, but when they arrive at Wo's house they discover they're not the first ones to seek him out. As it turns out, everyone there used to belong to the same gang and they decide that, at least for the time being, a truce is in order. Fay gets even more riled up and decides to track down Wo himself, which is the start of an epic showdown between the two gangs.
Exiled absolutely shines on a visual level. The framing is exquisite, the lighting is moody, the camera appears to be dancing through the settings and the editing is nigh perfect. To takes his time to build up tension and does that by zooming in on (groups of) individuals while capturing different emotions, before continuing with a scene. Even when people are in the same location, it creates a very fragmented and detached feel that drives up the tension, which almost always finds a release in a manic frenzy of bullets. While Hong Kong is mostly known for its slick and fast action, To slows everything down here and makes it extremely stylish.
The music is mostly supportive, but does a tremendous job adding to the thick, laden atmosphere. There's still a little bit of quirkiness in there, but To doesn't go as far as to give the music a life of its own. Usually I tend to complain about the lack of character in soundtracks, but this time around I feel it was the right choice to make. Stylistically Exiled is a very tight package, where every element has to play its part without falling out of line. It's definitely a good score though, with some extra credits for the great use of sound effects.
By the time To directed Exiled, he had a trusted group of actors he preferred working with. It must be said, he prepared them really well for this film, because they're all at the top of their game. Anthony Wong delivers a stand-out performance that slightly eclipses the rest of the cast, but Francis Ng, Suet Lam, Simon Yam and Nick Cheung all do a superb job. Josie Ho also deserves a special mention, not only did she give a great performance, but she'd go on to establish 852 Films not long after, which would become a driving force behind some of Hong Kong's more edgy genre films.
Exiled looks and feels like a love child between Kar-Wai Wong and John Woo. It's heroic bloodshed cinema with more refined aesthetic qualities, slowed down and deconstructed to boost the tension. Gone is Woo's cheesy drama in between, replaced by To's minute attention to detail. The film plays like a string of finales, each scene is pretty much a self-contained short, only loosely connected by the characters and some distant plot outlines. But when it is executed this well, who needs a plot really.
To released Election 2 in the same year and while that was a great film, Exiled really is on another level. It's rare to find genre cinema this refined, this detailed. There is not a single element out of tune, the styling is lush and delicate, the action is spot on and every single scene is memorable. It's a must see for fans of crime cinema. It's not my all-time favorite To, but that's simply because I prefer his more playful side. That said, it's definitely one of the best films he ever directed and I'm sure this will grow out to become a genre classic, if it hasn't already.