Johnnie To may not be the last man standing, but he is the lone Hong Kong action director who's done his best work in the aftermath of the Crown Colony's reversion to China. In a sense, the feverishly active To is out of step with history and, as its title suggests, his latest gangster opus, Exiled, revels in that sense of anachronism.
Over the course of a 20-year career, To has been a genre handyman. But his reputation, at least outside of Hong Kong, derives from his action films, purposely deranged — either through stylization, or naturalism, or both — beyond the formulae developed by John Woo and Tsui Hark. (To's 1999 The Mission, which Exiled most obviously references, mixed prolonged scenes of gangsters hanging out with episodes of their controlled, rather than delirious, shootouts.)
Set in Macau during the waning days of Portuguese rule, Exiled is a crepuscular paean to male group loyalty and rueful joie de vivre, as precipitated by the attempt of a Triad affiliate named Wo (Nick Cheung) to retire from the bloody fray. The movie opens with a fabulous set piece on a quiet street in sleepy Macau. Two teams of hit men — played by four hoodlums from The Mission, including the saturnine Anthony Wong from the To-sian Infernal Affairs movies — visit Wo's Mediterranean-style home.
The furnishings have yet to arrive, but Wo's wife (Josie Ho) and their infant child provide essential baggage. For 15 minutes, To plays with conventions lifted from spaghetti westerns as the rival plug-uglies make extended eye contact, the tension underscored by twangy guitar reverb and ratcheted up in escalating close-ups. Cigar ashes get flicked in slow motion; the gunmen are strategically deployed around the wide screen. It's unclear who wants what, at least initially, but everyone prepares for a three-way shootout within the confines of Wo's living room, even as a comic little police officer wrings his hands in the street outside. (The cop's whining about his desire to retire and hope for a "peaceful transition" mocks not only Wo but also the political mood of the period.)
The situation, a classic Mexican standoff, is resolved in characteristically ambiguous fashion. After a lively exercise in gunfight choreography, replete with overhead angles and smoking wounds — was To the first H.K. director to recognize the narrative value of the bulletproof vest? — it's revealed that the four hit men and Wo are all childhood friends, as well as erstwhile comrades in arms. At Mrs. Wo's urging, they help the family to complete their move and sit down for a meal, slurping in silence until the presence of a spent bullet in someone's tea brings down the house.
Following Exiled's plot development requires a certain amount of concentration (although not as much as is needed for To's two, more turgid Election films or his 2003 PTU, a formalist romp predicated on the late-night convergence of three separate police units and several criminal gangs). Reunited, at least in the short run, Wo and his buddies drop in on Macau's criminal booking agency, a sleazy hotel where they hope to pick up some lucrative assignments. In a typical To touch, a bored hooker adds to the human comedy, idly standing on a balcony where she can watch the action, also hopeful for a client.
This inscribed "onlooker" perspective serves to distance the action and accentuates the ironic aspect to To's shooting-gallery construction. In a way, his movies seem to be about setting up their various setups. Thus, this newly reconstituted gang opts for the most cinematic assignment, staking out a bizarrely empty restaurant wherein to assassinate the fearsome Boss Fay. But were they themselves set up? This elaborate restaurant shootout segues into the movie's most extravagant and visceral sequence, set in a clandestine medical clinic where the various factions come crawling in for emergency care. (Apparently this is the only such operation in Macau.)
Staged amid rolling gurneys, billowing curtains, and brutally plucked IV tubes, this sequence might well have been the climax. Exiled, however, continues its journey past the end of the night; the surviving principals exile themselves, taking a surprise switchback out of the city to Buddha Mountain, a mythological landscape administered by stone-faced cops who sport red berets and dangling cigarettes. By Hong Kong standards, To's policiers have been fairly down-to-earth, but Exiled, which begins with a tribute to Sergio Leone and ends by acknowledging Sam Peckinpah, exists solely in the world of the movies.