Spaghetti eastern

Johnnie To's Exiled (John) Woos Leone

How many times am I gonna have to rave about Exiled before you go see it? It's been a year since I first caught it at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival; the 2007 TIFF starts Sept. 6 and features Mad Detective, Johnnie To's latest collaboration with Wai Ka Fai (Fulltime Killer). Needless to say, I'll be first in line at that flick — and perhaps, like Exiled, it'll play the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival before finally opening in theaters. So you missed Exiled at the Asian fest, and you missed To's Triad Election when it rat-a-tatted through town a few months back. I hope you're paying attention now, because you're getting another big-screen crack at Hong Kong's most exciting director since John Woo skedaddled for Hollywood. Don't sleep on it.

If you've seen Exiled, of course, you know what I'm jawboning about. A sort-of sequel to what was previously held to be To's best film (excluding 2001's wondrously wrong Love on a Diet), 1999's The Mission, Exiled happens upon a group of gangsters at a crossroad. Control of Macau is about to be handed to China, and triad kingpin Boss Fay (Simon Yam) is determined to maintain his position in the underworld. Meanwhile, outcast foot soldier Wo (Nick Cheung) has ill-advisedly returned to town with wife (Josie Ho) and baby in tow. Dispatched by Fay to take him out are Wo's former compadres Blaze (Anthony Wong), Tai (Francis Ng), Cat (Roy Cheung), and Fat (Lam Suet). He's their bro, so they don't wanna kill him. These are assassins with hearts as generous as they are deadly. A compromise is reached: before Wo dies, the band will reunite for one last crime — the spoils of which will set his family up for life.

Of course, even the simplest plan is destined to go awry in a milieu geared toward staging as many balletic sequences of slo-mo gun-fu as humanly possible. As our antiheroes ride a hail of bullets through coincidences tragic and unbelievably convenient, To charges the action with an inspired array of spaghetti western motifs. World-weary Blaze needs only a cowboy hat (he rocks sunglasses instead) to be Lee Van Cleef's fashion heir. The soundtrack twangs with plaintive guitars. Tables are upended in a restaurant shoot-out that mirrors the kind of Wild West brawl a hunchbacked Klaus Kinski might set off. A gold heist (because it's good to be bad, or even ugly sometimes) is discussed. A harmonica emerges from a pocket while a campfire blazes.

To say much more about the plot would spoil its breakneck twists and turns, but know this: Exiled makes its lasting impact with its tone, which is palpably shaped by the tension of uncertainty and moral ambiguity. Plus, it doesn't get much better than a movie that balances hair-trigger violence with moments of gentle humor, as when a battle royale segues into an impromptu dinner party — and the realization that spent bullets are floating in the tea.

Though Yam makes an over-the-top villain — and the actor playing the region's police sergeant, who is predictably days from retirement, trowels on the whiny smarm — the film's core ensemble of gangsters speaks little and expresses less, at least overtly. Wong's face barely changes expression throughout. Still, it's evident that the bond between the men transcends triad politics; when they gather for a snapshot at the film's beginning, it's contrasted with a photo of the group as cocky youths. Clearly, a lot's happened since then. We don't know precisely what, but friendships that go beyond who's been ordered to kill whom have been well established — even as the code of the gangster is understood as law. "I have to kill you," Blaze tells Wo without affect.

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