Lam Ka Tung
Cheung Siu Fai
Tam Ping Man
Hui Siu Hung
Wong Wah Wo
“We are in a mess. Times are changing. We’re ushering in a new regime. Lots of old scores waiting to be settled.”
It is 1998, and in three days Macao is due to be handed back into Chinese control – but before the Portuguese colony can move on to its new future, there are debts to be paid, deals to be made, bridges to be built – or burnt. Gangsters from outside are circling to move in on expiring tenancies, and contract hitmen are making a killing.
One-time Hong Kong gangster Wo (Nick Cheung) has spent years on the run after a failed attempt to assassinate his boss Fey (Simon Yam), but has now resurfaced in Macao to put down new roots with his wife Jin (Josie Ho) and their baby. Boss Fey, meanwhile, is planning to move his powerbase to post-transition Macao, and wants revenge on his old enemy – so he sends two pairs of his best hitmen to take out Wo, relishing the fact that all four killers used to run with Wo back in the day.
In fact Boss Fey has miscalculated. Blaze (Anthony Wong) and his henchman Fat (Lam Suet), though staunchly loyal to their boss, feel conflicted, to say the least, by the orders he has given them, while Tai (Francis Ng) and his sharp-shooting associate Cat (Roy Cheung) despise Fey and will do anything to protect Wo. As things hot up and the hours to the handover tick by, the four killers begin to wonder whether their gangland allegiances, a (literal) tonne of gold, or even their own lives, are worth more than old friendships and newborn beginnings.
“Where to?” This question, with variants (“where will we go?”, “which way?”), becomes a refrain in Johnnie To’s Exiled, as its rootless principals struggle to work out their place in a rapidly changing world. Soon they are resorting to tossing coins at every fork in the road, until chance, fate or Buddha brings them to a point where they must decide who they are and take a stand for their values. Like the heroes of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch or Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine, these men while away their last days in homosocial clowning, games of masculinity and aimless violence, before finally embracing their own outmodedness in a blaze of glory that brings them back home, however briefly, from existential exile. They realise at last where they are going and what they want.
The question “where to?” might apply equally to the film’s studied use of narrative misdirection. By turns unabashedly sentimental and claustrophobically tense, slyly comic and explosively violent, Exiled repeatedly wrongfoots the viewer’s expectations. A furious gunfight ends with all the participants laughing together over dinner (cooked in a bullet-dented pot); getaway cars need to be push-started; and although the conclusion never seems anything less than inevitable, wild coincidence (or is it destiny?) drives the plot towards it by the most unpredictable of routes.
Following the likes of Infernal Affairs, One Night in Mongkok and To’s own Election, Exiled offers further proof that post-accession Hong Kong is home to the world’s best action-oriented policiers. Boasting an ensemble cast of the island’s finest character actors, superbly choreographed gunplay (in very confined spaces), a painterly cool engendered by precise framing and filtered colours, a sombre guitar-based soundtrack (by Guy Zerafa), and the sort of pace that other films would kill to achieve, Exiled is unquestionably cracking cinema. Add to this the audacious portrayal of Macao’s handover as a transition from one group of crooks to another, and you have a moody crime drama that doubles as a revolutionary political allegory – ringing the changes on China’s evolving reunification even as it longs for a future that will return to the noblest values of the past.