Exiled
Hong Kong 2006
Directed by Johnnie To.


The bodyguards/hitmen of 1999's classic THE MISSION are back again, and once again are helping a friend against the wishes of their crime boss Fay (Simon Yam). Wo (Nick Cheung) shot him, once, and fled. Now Wo is back in Hong Kong, and Fay wants him dead. Our friends are at odds with each other, as half want to protect him and half are hired to kill him, but the fact that he has a wife (Josie Ho) and a month-old son tips the team down the righteous path. It's not wise to mess with a classic like THE MISSION, but this sequel honors the first and more than holds its own.

THE MISSION was a standout film of 1999 for a number of reasons, including the story and the strong acting from the ensemble cast: Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet, and Jacky Lui (who does not, unfortunately, return for EXILED). But more than that, THE MISSION was exceptional due to the way Johnnie To framed the action in that film: Instead of the "bullet ballet" of so many movies, To framed the action in a more static way, with an almost geometric precision. Action took place in clearly defined spaces and each actor in the action had a clear location within the space, the position and angle of attack being more important than gunplay theatrics. In this respect To was pioneering a new action aesthetic, having broken from John Woo style hyper-theatrics after purging himself from them the year before with A HERO NEVER DIES.

In EXILED, I expected a return to the action aesthetics of THE MISSION, but instead, To does it one better, (with the exception of the first gunfight in the movie and an ill-advised flying door), by once again redefining the action scene. Whereas before battle lines were clear and the action was minimalist and mathematical, here, the action is confused, and confusing, chaos in tight quarters where the different sides aren't wearing convenient uniforms to distinguish them. But the action isn't confusing in a sloppy, shaky-cam sort of way. To favors instead long shots of the action, with a minimum of editing. The action looks incredibly real, enhanced only with the spray of blood and a well integrated musical score. He has been working on this sort of scene for a while, notably in some of the big Judo action scenes in THROWDOWN and the extended action take of BREAKING NEWS (both from 2004). But it all really pays off here. On top of it all To adds a strong spaghetti western aesthetic, from the costuming to the music. There's even a scene around a campfire in which one of our heroes pulls out a harmonica.

EXILED underscores the primary difference between John Woo and Johnnie To. Woo redefined action cinema in the late eighties, and created a raft of imitators. But afterwards, he never changed. Everything else in his career up to the present day have been variations on the same theme, to the extent that his slow-mo and white doves have been parodied in everything from Stephen Chow's KING OF COMEDY to Tsui Hark's TIME AND TIDE, and his own general descent into self-parody. To, meanwhile, stays on his feet and doesn't stop moving. He redefines action cinema, then suddenly switches over to making comedies for a few years. The only thing we've come to expect from a new Johnnie To film is that it will be highly technically competent and that it will be good. Everything else is constantly changing, improving, driving ahead to the next peak. His prolific output is, I'm convinced, a key to his success. You don't get better at something by doing it only once every four years, hoping to outdo your previous films (Do you hear that, Stephen Chow?). You get better by doing it every day, and always looking to the future.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on September 04, 2007.


Comments

First time I've heard this referred to as a sequel. The actors are the same, but the characters are different this time around, as are their names. I suppose thematically it's a sequel, but little else. Good points about Woo. I can usually watch his movies at least once, and always find some entertainment value, but it's always followed by a sense of disappointment that his style hasn't evolved very much. Perhaps he needs to stop directing other people's screenplays and contribute something of his own (as on his next movie), but I'm not even sure that will make much difference at his age.

I'll be interested to hear your opinions on the latest Johnnie To/Wai Ka-fai collabo MAD DETECTIVE with Lau Ching-wan. Caught it at the TIFF a few days ago and was pleasantly surprised. It's not as strong as EXILED, and actually feels like a bit of a one-off for these guys, but it still outpaces a lot of mainstream HK stuff these days. Weird and funny in equal doses, with the expected Johnnie To lustre. Definitely gonna have solid cult appeal.

Posted by: Brian Thibodeau at September 17, 2007 11:07 AM

Johnnie To explicitly states in interviews that EXILED is NOT a sequel to THE MISSION. Well, I suppose he's entitled to his opinion. Especially considering, to say otherwise would make it that much less likely that any foreign distributors would pick up the film. How would you market a film that's a sequel to a film that's almost 10 years old and that few have ever seen? It just wouldn't work.

On the other hand, if the actors thought they were playing different characters than the ones they played in THE MISSION, they could have done a whole lot better at it. And the script must have originated as a sequel, even in the end result the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Anthony Wong remains the strategist, Lam Suet remains his back-up. Francis Ng continues to be in mental, if not physical, opposition. EXILED even takes place in 1999, the same year THE MISSION was released. And finally, whereas THE MISSION is concerned with killing a coworker or sneaking him out of the country, EXILED is concerned with what happens when someone you were supposed to have killed comes back.

EXILED is all about facing up to your ethical obligations, and making decisions, even though at one point they try to discard decision making altogether. It only makes sense that their current predicament is a result of past decisions -- like, but not exactly like (because its not a sequel!) decisions they made in THE MISSION.

And anyway, who are you going to believe? Me or Johnnie To???

Re: John Woo, here's to hoping he has something new to show us in his upcoming film. The scriptwriting credit does increase the promise for the film, but given his recent output, not by very much in my estimation. Still, fingers crossed, maybe he'll come back with something new and wow us all.

Posted by: PTN at September 17, 2007 05:06 PM

Bah, humbug, I say!! These are cousins at best, not brothers. :D

Even if this WAS an "official" sequel to a 10-year old movie, an western distrib could still release it. THE MISSION may have found it's largest audience within the ranks of Hong Kong cinemaphiles (and OK, a few Asians, I suppose), but it's a movie that has earned a fair amount of cred over the years, and that would at least be enough to sell a few R1 DVDs that had "From the director of The Mission" or "The Long-Awaited Sequel to The Mission" slapped on the sleeve. IF it was a sequel.

Of course, the fact that it carries over no actual plot threads from it's predecessor means it could just as easily be marketed as a stand-alone entity. A distributor wouldn't even have to mention THE MISSION if they didn't want to, or couldn't for whatever reason. The film requires no knowledge of the earlier film whatsoever to be enjoyed. Mind you, knowing the shared history of EXILED's cast and crew does add another level of interest, but it's not crucial.

The similarities you mention - and I agree, they're there - are either thematic or subtextual, or technical as it relates the cast and crew. As such, I'm afraid I'll have to go with Johnnie To on this one (Ouch! Stop hitting me!!). He simply got together a bunch of people who were magic the first time around and, perhaps hoping lightning could strike twice, perfectly recaptured the essense of what made THE MISSION such a fantastic film.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if To rounded up this very same stock company many years from now and did yet another film in the same vein as these two, but once again changed the names, locations, visual appearance, etc.

Whether it will be a "sequel" to either of these films is anybody's guess, but it would be much, much cooler if it wasn't. Then he could call the whole thing a sort of spiritual trilogy.


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Woo definitely needs to branch out. Thematical predictability may be a blessing for some directors, particularly those with arthouse sensibilities, but for a maker of epic-scale actioners, that well was bound to run dry at some point. I still wonder if he's just too old and entrenched now to really care to do something different besides re-costuming the same old themes. TIme will tell.

Posted by: Brian Thibodeau at September 19, 2007 03:01 PM
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