As it stands, Exiled makes a nice little trilogy of gangster (triad) films for Hong Kong director Johnnie To, but unfortunately it lacks the pensive grace that characterized his previous entry, Triad Election (aka Election 2.) This time around, To posits the gangster flick as a hybrid Western, set in the closest thing, in modern times, to a frontier, Macau on the eve of its 1999 transfer from Portuguese rule to semi-Chinese rule. Many of the action set pieces have traces of Sergio Leone, in the tense and protracted build-ups to shootouts, and of Sam Peckinpah, in the ultraviolent gunfights themselves. The characters drink shots of whiskey, saloon-style, and even rob a shipment of gold bullion from an armored car (a modern stagecoach), in an overall milieu of Victorian architecture (a Johnny Guitar style hotel) and urban lawlessness, where the police are established from the get-go as an ineffective and corrupt force of order. But this isn’t exactly Stagecoach; the standard Code of the West is subverted here, as the characters act according to duty and loyalty not triumphantly but to their ultimate undoing.
Shot by To’s frequent cinematographical collaborator Cheng Siu Keung, Exiled is rich in the same melancholic hues that characterized the Election dyadâ€”Godfather/Gordon Willis-esque shades of deep and rich red, brown and goldâ€”but this time around the content, except in brief flashes, doesn’t seem to match the visual plaintiveness. As the story of a group of childhood gangster friends, now grown, forced into exile by their refusal to kill one of their own, there are some moments of ironic hilarity, including when two warring factions show up, following a battle, at the same underground clinic, and infrequent bursts of pathos in the leads’ deep platonic bond, encapsulated in a sepia photograph of the crew, and Anthony Wong’s hangdog expression, but mostly Exiled plays out as one long gunfight, occasionally stopped but always soon started up again. Though some of the sequences are marvelous the effect is, overall, exhausting.
Exiled might have more to offer in its political subtext, but it went straight over my American head. “It was a peaceful transition,” a Macau police officer about to lose his job says, presumably ironically, near the end of the film after an epically savage bloodbath. If it’s an allegory for the troubled transition, the incongruity, of the special administrative regions (the other being Hong Kong) into the “one country, two systems” system, I imagine it speaks more powerfully to the Chinese. All I could see was a cut-above genre picture.