What's a top ten list without a Johnnie To film? And I mean any top ten list. Top ten recipes? Gorgonzola gnocchi while watching The Mission at #7. Top ten automobiles? A brown trans-am driving to the theater so I can see Vengeance at #3. Top ten films of the 2000s? Johnnie To's Exiled at #10.
I had a hard time choosing between his and To's 2 Election films (that's right, if they were picked I would have counted both parts as one film!). Whereas the Election movies are gritty looks at the evil behind the Triads with some very surprising and shocking moments, Exiled is a heroic bloodshed type of film where the characters are tough, cool, honourable and ass-kickers. I love all the films, but maybe what put Exiled over the top was it encompassed everything I love about Asian action films with just a sprinkling of Leone.
As you'll see later in this list (if you continue to read my poorly worded ramblings) the last decade was essentially when I became enthralled with Asian cinema. After an amazing year for Hollywood in 1999, it seemed that with the exception of an occasional American Psycho or Traffic, American films had become predictable, routine and above all else, boring. Where was the invention and creativity? I really wasn't seeing anything new. Then I stumbled upon Takashi Miike films and Battle Royale. Here's what I was fuckin' looking for. And then the rest of the decade was spent discovering the many amazing genres of Asian cinema.
I had previously seen The Killer and Hard Boiled (like any cinema lover worth their salt) and, of course, loved them. But when John Woo left for America, there was a big hole where Hong Kong's kick ass action used to be. Granted, I don't hate a lot of recent HK action as much as some fans, but there wasn't a director that a fan could rely on the same way they could on Woo. Then good ole Johnnie To entered into the picture. I had seen Full Time Killer at the Toronto Film Festival, followed by PTU and loved them dearly. The Election films I unfortunately only saw on DVD, but it seemed To was stepping up his game. Not only were they great, intense films, but dramatically they were possibly the best he's produced.
So it was with much anticipation me and my good lady wife went to see Exiled when it played the fest in whatever fucking year it was there. Waiting in the massive line I was happy to see that so many folks out there loved To as well. And I don't think anyone but the motherfucka sitting beside me (of course) were let down. On the bright side though, despite the dude sitting beside me complaining through much of the film, I was loving it so much I couldn't be bothered to be upset. That never, ever happens.
Exiled starts out with a CU of a hand knocking on a door. A haggard looking but beautiful woman opens up and is greeted by two ruffians looking for Wo (no that's not a cute euphemism for sex). She tells them she's never heard of him and they leave. Moments later, another CU of the door being knocked on and two more scallywags (one being a surprisingly cool looking Anthony Wong) are asking for Wo. Same response. As the four obviously shady characters wait outside the home for Wo to show himself, it's obvious that at one time they had all been friends. 2 are there to protect Wo, and 2 are there to kill him.
Leone is immediately brought to mind. All of the criminals are wearing overcoats and smoking cigars (though not cigarellos) much like The Man With No Name, and even as they wait for Wo, it somewhat reminded me of the killers waiting for The Man With Harmonica at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West. Essentially, the audience knows some shit is going to go down. And when it does, it's spectacular. Wo arrives and one person from each set follows him up to his home as the other two wait outside (when a cop shows up there is a scene with a can that seems plucked from A Fistful of Dollars). The gunfight that follows is great, but what is even better is how it's followed up. After they try and kill each other, and only stop because of Wo's infant son, they decide to talk about Wo's crime instead, and help the small family cook and cleanup while they're at it. It's this feeling of kinship, honour and friendship that elevate this far beyond a gangster shoot em up. After To gets us worked up with the scene leading up to the gunfight, and the fight itself, he makes us laugh as the ruthless hitmen roll up their sleeves to move a crib or make soup that still has bullets in it from the gunfight. Amazing opening for a film. This film is about memories and regrets. And people getting shot.
As for the action scenes, it seems To keeps trying to outdo the previous set piece. There are shootouts in a hallway, a restaurant, a makeshift doctor's office, a field and a hotel, and each scene is more impressive than the last. Sure it could be argued that the CGI Red Bull can in the last shootout takes one out of the moment, but it could also be argued that whoever thinks that is actually just an asshole.
Also, the characters in Exiled are fantastic. Not only are our protaganists cool as fuck, but we really care about them because they care so much for each other. Anthony Wong is amazing as the ringleader, completely changing his usual image as a weirdo or a sage like mentor. Here he plays a man whom I suspect may have become a hitman to make him feel better about himself. During a scene where he is being bullied by a former boss, it felt like this wasn't something he was unaccustomed to . Also, one of the final shots in the film is of him putting on his shades, trying to remain cool despite what has just happened.
Also, I loved at a certain point in the film, he decides to leave everything to chance. His decisions were not helping anyone, so he let the flip of a coin decide their fate. The payoff to this is very powerful.
Also, Simon Yam was hilarious as the villain in the film, hamming it up while remaining a complete asshole. He would have made a great heel in wrestling in another life. Also, who couldn't love the hotel owner/pimp/gangster Jeff? A scumbag until the very end. And the female characters are great. As opposed to the usual love interest, our central female character is Wo's wife, heartbroken because of Wo's choice of lifestyle and the friends that go with it. As much as you like our group of criminals, it's hard not to side with her by the end of the film.
I could go much more into the film, but if you haven't seen it I'd hate to spoil anything for you. There is definitely more of that "Leone" feeling nearing the end and some wicked tough guy bonding with a corrupt cop.
Exiled is a semi follow up to To's The Mission in the same way Fierce Creatures is a follow up to A Fish Called Wanda. It's not necessary to see The Mission before seeing Exiled (I didn't) but the two films are great companion pieces. The Mission explores much of the same themes and has most of the same actors playing similar parts. So if you happen to love Exiled you'd really be doing yourself a disservice in not seeing The Mission.
Almost done, just wanted to say I was surprised when this film came and went in North America. I didn't think the film would connect the same way Woo's films did, but I did expect some fanfare. It seems a lot of people I know, when it comes to foreign films, think that if they've seen what is considered the best from a certain genre (Woo's heroic bloodshed films) that they've done their job as a filmgoer and there's no need to explore further. Maybe I'm being critical of them since I love discovering films that don't have a lot of shelf space at Blockbuster, but I really expected To to be a household name by now.
Exiled is a great place to start if you want to get into To's films. It's got everything you need in a heroic bloodshed film. And if you're a fan of Leone (and really, who the hell isn't?) you'll be even more satisfied. Considering it's on my list for best films of the decade, it goes without saying that this is a must see.