Remember the good old days when Hong Kong productions were the top of the class in Asian cinema, especially their frequently stunning action and crime dramas? Since its handover to China, Hong Kong cinema has largely become a pathetic joke, with only occasional glimpses of its past glory. The chief architect currently giving HK any consistent legitimacy is director Johnnie To, and his latest release proves his value once again.
Appropriately, Exiled is set in 1998, around the tail end of Hong Kong’s days as a force in worldwide cinema. While it bears similarities to other gangster films in his oeuvre, it’s probably closest in spirit to his 1999 hit The Mission. In fact, it uses many of the same actors, most notably Anthony Wong and Simon Yam. Like The Mission, it centers on a group of Triad gangsters as they band together for a common goal, in this case the protection of one of their own.
As the film opens, Triad boss Fay (Yam) dispatches two of his goons to Macau to take out a rogue associate who had attempted a hit on him. The hit men approach the home of their mark and former colleague, only to be apprehended by two other hit men out to protect the target. A tense standoff ensues, leading to reconciliation as the five men realize their long-time camaraderie means more to them than even the iron rule of their boss. This sets them on a collision course with the enraged Fay, putting all of their lives in jeopardy.
While on the lam and wandering in the wilderness (don’t ask), they stumble across a chance to steal a fortune in gold, an odd diversion from the primary plot that eventually factors into the touching conclusion. There’s no question that a bloody shootout factors into the finale, but To stacks his cards in such a way that it’s not at all clear how things will work out until the end.
Admittedly, the central plot is nothing special, but the charming fellowship of the gangsters and the relatively high production values, especially its cinematography and dramatic action set pieces, elevates this film far above the norm and makes it a true contender on the international platform. It’s one of those rare films where the simple sight of the stars quietly walking down a street (in a suitably staged formation) invites instant admiration and a strong desire to see where their adventure takes them. Anthony Wong and Simon Yam lead the class with their superb acting performances, with Wong the enigmatic leader of his motley band of brothers and Yam as the glowering, oily force of evil. Frankly, this cast could just sit around playing cards for two hours and still captivate viewers, but luckily they’re given great material to work with here.