Exiled (Fong juk) (Hong Kong/China, director Johnnie To): Among lovers of Hong Kong cinema, Johnnie To is legendary. He had three films showing in this year’s festival (Election (2005) and Election 2 (2006) screened together, as well as this film) and this was my first experience seeing one of his films. I’ll be seeking out some others. Exiled is an incredibly well-constructed film. It’s like a Swiss watch, with every scene precisely set up and choreographed and nothing wasted. To has created a self-contained world and set his characters loose in it. Set just around the time of Macau’s reversion to the Chinese government, it concerns a group of hit men who come together when their boss orders a hit on one of them. Two pairs of men arrive at the target’s new home. The first to warn him, the second to kill him. After a kinetic set piece involving three shooters, precisely 18 bullets, and the target’s wife and infant son, the group ends up helping still-alive Wo move furniture into his new place, before settling down to eat.
The mixture of action, comedy, and sentiment is probably a staple of Hong Kong gangster films, but I found it fresh. The plot continues when the assassins agree to give Wo some time to carry out one last job to make some cash for his soon to be widowed wife and orphaned child. Things don’t go as planned, however, and the film bumps along from set piece to set piece until an inevitable but satisfying end. Each choreographed set piece is set up in such a way as to heighten the anticipation, and you almost don’t mind that none of these trained killers seems to be a very good shot. It’s enough that they’re all ludicrously macho, swilling scotch from the bottle and smoking as they fire bullets at each other.
Seeing this one on the big screen is a must, just for the sound. The musical score, by Canadian Guy Zerafa, veered between James Bond and spaghetti westerns, with a bit of mournful harmonica thrown in. It worked perfectly, as did the fact that the viewer can hear every single shell casing hit the ground throughout the film. Even the gunshots themselves seemed different from those in American films, with less blast and more metallic sounds. It certainly helped create atmosphere. While this and the choreographed gunplay never let you forget you’re watching a created thing rather than any semblance of reality, that actually made me more appreciative of the creator. He’s certainly created another Johnnie To fan.