Four childhood friends – big boys, all grown up now – wearing trench coats the hot sun would surely find them sweating profusely in, carry large, dark, duffel bags loosely at their sides. Two have arrived later than the others. Both pairs of posturers have knocked on the same door and asked if a man named Wo lives there. The woman who answered lied each time she was asked. After spotting each other in the open space below the apartment, the old friends wave at one another – both awkward and professionally. The crane the camera is mounted on rises. Lenses float, pan and zoom. Director Johnnie To cuts back and forth between the men, waiting patiently in the streets. They speak no more than they need to. They’re here to kill a friend they grew up with. They will find honor will not let them pull the trigger – at least, fatally.
Lam Suet (left) and Anthony Wong (right) are not the first to come knocking…
Soon, Wo arrives home, and two of the men (played by Anthony Wong and Francis Ng) follow him upstairs. Wo’s apartment is dark and nearly empty. He opens a drawer of his dresser and pulls a revolver out. A crowd of bullets roll around the wood. He holds his sidearm up. Wong and Ng’s characters remove their magazines from the semi-automatic pistols they carry. Each time Wo places a round inside his cylinder, Wong flicks a bullet out of his own weapon. Wo puts in another. Once both men have the same number of rounds in their guns, Ng’s character follows suit. Johnnie To stretches and compresses space and time in his opening sequence in such a way that simultaneously recalls the best of Leone’s elongated Western showdowns, as well as the symbolic minimalism of Melville’s seminal, style-driven, gangster pictures.
Leone’s coat clad outlaws – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Intricate detail is paid to the sound effects; as curtains and chimes sway in the wind, ash is flicked from atop a roll of smoking death, or a tea kettle starts to boil. Wo’s young infant begins crying. Equal effort is applied to the beauty and framing of each composition. Such precision effortlessly aids the specificity of the (likely) preordained editing choices and, thus, the subsequent shot selections. The seamless audio/visual flow evokes a storytelling tension similar to the first scene of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, but also, Alain Delon’s professional cool, in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai. To adds his own brand of personal, professional, cinematic, flourish to the proceedings, atop the homage ridden, genre pastiche. As an exercise in pure, posturing, film grammar, the opening of Johnnie To’s, Exiled (2006), is a masterfully elegant display of how to convey the stakes and urgency of narrative information without dialog, through genre symbols and coded style. Words are not so necessary when you’ve grown up alongside the transnational, visual language heavy, evolution of two of the most classic of genres within the masculine melodrama catalog – the gangster and outlaw picture – as Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To has.
Melville’s calm, collected, hit-men – Le Samourai (1967)
The endless repeatability of western and gangster influenced genre exercises from filmmakers across the globe is quite fascinating. Perhaps even more so than John Woo (whose film The Killer is a re-imagining of Melville’s minimalist Le Samourai), To seems to take much of his stylistic approach to Triad pictures from the French director’s noir inspired work. In Michael Ingham’s book on To’s film, PTU, in which he addresses many of the similarities between To’s numerous efforts in the hit-man genre and that of the French Godfather, he notes how “To finds a way of integrating the star perfectly into his work, be it Lau Ching-wan, Tony Leung or Simon Yam, in such a way that the film does not revolve around him” (Ingham 113). In the case of Exiled; Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Nick Cheung, Lam Suet, Roy Cheung, Richie Jen, Gordon Lam, Josie Ho, and Simon Yam.
A trio of Triads…
Similarly, “Melville always used a strong, all-round cast in films like Le Samouraï, Le Cercle Rouge, and Un Flic, films in which Alain Delon’s performance is counter-balanced by equally impressive contributions from the other actors” (114). And films whose worlds are inhabited by criminal professionals in trench coats and fedoras, not too dissimilarly to the costumed way his hit-men dress crisply dress in Exiled, or one of its precursors, The Mission (1999). Ingham also notes that “To’s tendency to prefer ensemble actors, especially in [PTU], The Mission and Exiled, is… typical of his disregard for the pervasive Hong Kong idol culture”, his philosophy against “crassly commercial stereotype[s]… [an] underlying spirit of fatalism and endurance.”
Roy Cheung, Lam Suet, Francis Ng & Anthony Wong on the job in The Mission (1999)
In addition to The Mission, which, some argue, Exiled can be seen as a “sort-of sequel to [as it] reunites that film’s main cast, [playing] similar but not actually the same characters” (115). Exiled was also precipitated by the Election films, “a saga of the power struggles inside the triads”, and though it may not begin with the words “I believe in Hong Kong,” as Coppola’s movie begins with “I believe in America,” many people liken them to the Triad equivalent of The Godfather Parts I & II, “though To’s saga is characterized by a more contemporary edge” than the dreary, but decorated, New Hollywood classics – two very different updates on the gangster mode than the likes of To, Woo, and Melville’s pictures. While some may write films such as Exiled off as excessive exercises in redundancy they may be missing the purpose, the beauty, of these classic formulas – their inspiring malleability. As film critic Steve Erickson notes:
Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, Anthony Wong & Lam Suet reunite in Exiled (2006)
“Genre is about archetype, and just as there are only so many psychological interpretations of a dream, sooner or later there would seem to be one of two inevitable outcomes for genre filmmaking: subversion or exhaustion. That Hong Kong filmmakers have figured out something new to do with the genre is as inexplicable as it is exciting.”
The killer (Anthony Wong) is publicly ridiculed by the boss (Simon Yam) – Exiled (2006)
Johnnie To’s use of actors is also reminiscent of Coppola’s cast – Brando, Pacino, Caan, Duvall, Keaton, and later De Niro – as well as Sergio Leone – Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and Rod Steiger. His use of “box-office names such as Tony Leung Kafai, Andy Lau and Lau Ching-wan are cast in his films for their qualities as actors, not for their star status”. Though, casting some of these fellows for financial gain likely never hurt. Exiled is extremely reminiscent of the Italian Western revisionist, as “highly stylized music and camera work, the choreography of the gunplay, the posturing [performers flirting] with parody, the melodrama raised to the operatic” are key to the grammar of the cinematic narrative. And, as with Melville, our minimalist Frenchman, “it becomes clear that To means to have some mischief with the gangster iconography that Woo exalted [and] in the same way Sergio Leone… exalted the western” (Erickson).
An Eastern gold heist…
Just as the vast stretches of dead land evoke a desperate void for Leone’s ‘spaghetti’ approach, “Exiled depicts an even more depopulated Macao — one that looks like it has just experienced a 28 Days Later type of scenario. Gang members await their target in a Macao street in which nobody, except their intended victim and a pusillanimously pragmatic off-duty cop, appears to come and go.” Apart from the principle players very few appear in the semiotic heavy iconography, “one would think that it is Day One of the Chinese New Year Holiday, a day when people stay home as a prelude to visits on succeeding days” Igham notes that where much of Exiled takes place, “Macao, has a smaller population than Hong Kong, To appears to be recreating the ambiance of a fly-blown, one-horse town as depicted in a Sergio Leone film, as opposed to a recognizable Macao side street.” The characters, these outlaw friends, blood brothers since childhood, when they speak, repeatedly utter simple things like “Where are we headed”, or “We all carry guns”, Aside from more complicated plots, To’s Triad pictures are reminiscent of Leone and Melville in this regard also. The characters, along with the filmmakers are men of action. Small talk is kept to a minimum.
Melville much, Anthony Wong (Alain Delon)…
A classic American genre, Italian operatics and distanced French isolation somehow make up the bones of some of the world’s most artfully compelling Hong Kong genre fare, Johnnie To’s sleek Triad films. In conjunction with his fellow transitional cinema artists, the ‘cool factor’ of a stylish deconstruction may be the foundation for his success in prescribed genres. To’s unique outlook applies an “onlooker” perspective [that] 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 set-ups.” Many scenes could be read as exhaustively self-reflexive in the ways some of Woo, or Quentin Tarantino’s visions often can be. But To’s work houses more restraint. There is a code to his art, same as the honor bound men in his worlds. He addresses tropes and cliché trappings in gracefully nuanced and sophisticated ways, as opposed to solely attention grabbing, reference waving, eventually exacerbating ones. To is a master at tapping into the storytelling power of excess. He can do so quite elegantly and he does so quite often in Exiled.
When the man you just tried to murder shows up at your doctor’s office…
He builds to scenes that feel designed to comment on the notions of previous plot structures. As when “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?” The film never stops long enough to catch the audience up on little details like this. After an eruption of violence, the “elaborate restaurant shoot-out 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.” The location makes for a gorgeously stylish set piece. Layered architecture and never-ending windows enable To to use his imagination to indulge – as he did artfully in the escalator shootout in The Mission – but, as with that sequence, efficiency, disciplined professional artistry, take precedence over the blood bath. “Staged amid rolling gurneys, billowing curtains, and brutally plucked IV tubes, this [scene] might well have been the climax” (Hoberman). To is more concerned with looking at the broad strokes, and attacking them with his aesthetic, than in exploiting cinematic technique.
Smoke and Revolvers…
The culminating stretch of the film loves Western iconography as much as the setting sun on a desert horizon. After incidentally causing the death of their friend Wo, the gun-for-hires “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.” The ending of film finds the four old friends debating whether or not to take on a convoy and steal the fortune of gold inside – much like the bandits in a Leone flick, or the lonely safe-crackers in a Melville heist. Despite being existentially, as well as financially desperate, on the run, longing to avenge their dead brother, the four friends flip a coin. They decide if it is heads they will assault the police protecting the convoy and go after the gold. It comes up tails and the men appear relieved. They lay back on the dry grass, some letting off huge sighs, bathing in sunlight. Wong’s character takes his sunglasses off. Hong Kong director, Johnnie To, “mixes Peckinpah’s last-gang fatalism with Leone’s existential mythologizing.” As Mark Olsen puts it, “When a character pulls out a harmonica, it just makes total sense.”
The operatic showdown…
To can tap into genre tendencies as well as the form’s boldest pioneers could. A film like Exiled may appear to be nothing but natty pastiche. Yet there is a powerful and personal professionalism to Johnnie To’s talents that should not be glossed over. “By Hong Kong standards. To ‘s policiers have been fairly down-to-earth, but Exiled… begins with a tribute to Sergio Leone and ends by acknowledging Sam Peckinpah-exists solely in the world of the movies”. “How heavy is a ton of dreams” Lam Suet’s character, Fat, muses. To then cuts to the four men crossing a bridge surrounded by tall, curvy, grass. “How heavy is a ton of love?” Suet asks himself. “Nonsense you can’t weigh love,” he answers. “How much is a ton of hard work?” he wonders. “Is a ton of hard work heavy?
“A ton of work is hard only when it’s heavy”, he concedes.
Johnnie To’s Bag Carrying Posturers…
We never see what’s inside the baggage these Eastern outlaws carry beside their ankles. All we need to know is that it’s heavy. Johnnie To lets his strength for style, and cinematic symbols – sunglasses, shootouts shrouded in shadow, smoke and silhouettes – his adept approach to posturing, masculine, Triad melodramas – his love for form and genre – do the rest. To’s seen and made this type of picture often enough, he’s learned; the simplest of nods, to the most classic of cinematic storytelling semiotics, can be most specific.
Erickson, Steve. “Cycles of Violence: Johnnie To’s bravura Exiled is the Last Word in the Gangster Genre (until the next one comes along).” Los Angeles Magazine, Sept. 2007, General OneFile,http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A168212765/ITOF?u=csunorthridge&sid=ITOF&xid=bae94acc. Accessed 8 May 2018.
……..Hoberman, J. “The Good, the Bad, and the Ironic.” The Village Voice, Aug, 2007, pp. 59. ProQuest, http://libproxy.csun.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.csun.edu/docview/232281700?accountid=7285. Accessed May 8
……..Ingham, Michael. Johnnie To Kei-Fung’s PTU, Hong Kong University Press, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/csun/detail.action?docID=677418. Accessed May 7 2018.
……..Olsen, Mark. “LOW VOLTAGE.” Film Comment, vol. 42, no. 6, 2006, pp. 64-64,67. ProQuest, http://libproxy.csun.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.csun.edu/docview/210249556?accountid=7285. Assessed May 8.