There’s a jazz guitarist by the name of Bill Frisell. What jumps out about his music is that it’s not about the melody or the musicianship, but about the interesting sounds and the confident, creative brain behind them.
The music for Exiled is composed by Guy Zerafa, and it sometimes sounds like Frisell. It’s fitting, because the movie, too is in the same vein. Exiled is not so much about the plot or the characters, but about the visceral mood and the obsessive, creative brains behind it.
Five Minus One
R for strong violence, some sexual content
On the surface, the movie is about five friends, partners in crime. Having grown up together, they are a gang within a gang. When the big boss sends four of them to kill the fifth, they make an honest attempt on their friend’s life. But when the assassination fails, all five sit down and reminisce, drinking the night away.
In the morning, they still have a problem. The boss wants Wo dead. Wo is not afraid to die, but he has a wife and an infant child that will need looking after. The five friends decide to take on a side job, a suicide mission that pays well. They plan to let Wo get killed in the line of duty, claim the money, and report back to the boss that they whacked their friend. This way, at least the wife and child will have enough money to see them through.
It’s a brilliant plan, but they didn’t count on one thing: the side job happens to be financed by their own boss. And when he finds out, the gang within a gang find themselves exiled from their former lives.
Director Johnnie To seems obsessive. He meticulously sets up the film’s many gunfights, making sure that the audience knows exactly where everyone is. The blocking, framing, and filming are all tightly controlled for dramatic effect. To will hold the tension until he’s good and ready and then release the chaotic, simultaneous spray of bullets and blood. If your brain works faster than mine, you may even be able to follow who shot whom, although I found myself waiting until it was over to see who was still standing.
Others have compared Exiled to the westerns of Sergio Leone, and I suppose there is a similarity of tension and pacing. But Exiled is its own film, not constrained by homage.
This obsession over scenes of anticipation serves To well. It makes Exiled one of the more tense mob thrillers you’ll see this year. It also makes the movie seem more substantial. You could probably watch the movie over and over and keep picking up new and important details that To packed obsessively into each frame. I’ll have to watch it again to see if I’m right.
If there’s a down side to this obsession with the perfect gunfight, it’s that the world has more important problems for a talented director to think about. It’s a shame that To’s obsession went toward guns and gangsters and not toward something more interesting or more noble.
Fog of War
Still, there’s a code of honor among these outlaws. They prefer a fair fight, and they won’t leave an injured friend behind. They treat Wo’s wife and child as if they were family. They even let the cowardly cop who’s hours away from retirement off the hook. We don’t get to know any of these men very well, but for anti-heroes, we could do worse.
To’s apparent obsession with detail makes Exiled a candidate for repeat viewings. Unfortunately, it might also require multiple viewings. As much as I appreciated the tone and the emotion of the film, there seemed to be a fog of war that was hard to penetrate. I felt like I was supposed to know more about these men than I did. I wonder if there is some cultural knowledge that Hong Kong audiences would bring that would let them understand the characters better. Maybe a native speaker would catch nuances that a reader of subtitles wouldn’t.
Or maybe the characters are deliberately sketched rather than filled in.
In any case, Johnnie To seems to be a director worth looking up and looking out for.