Ever since John Woo realised two guns were better than one, Hong Kong has been the Sorbonne of action movies. Exiled, the latest offering from relative neophyte Johnny To, is a fine and bloody addition to a pantheon that includes: A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in the Head and, of course, the incomparable Hard Boiled (or Boiled Egg, to borrow a friend’s malapropism). Whether Hong Kong movies are any good is almost a moot point (look at Wong Kar Wai; he’s been cranking out nonsense for years). Hong Kong gave movies adrenaline, a try-anything infusion. Gangsters need two guns in Hong Kong, almost because (in Hong Kong) there’s more to shoot.
When Sam Peckinpah told this story, he called it The Wild Bunch. A bunch of gun-slingers, far from home, friendless (but for each other) determine to help out an old comrade, even if it means dying for him. In The Wild Bunch, “far from home” meant Mexico; in Exiled “far from home” means Macao. There are no gun-slingers anymore, so instead our heroes are hitmen. There’s a fat one, an old one, a cool one and one who shouts a lot. Their friend used to be a hitman too, but he tried to whack his boss, so… he doesn’t work for his boss anymore. Friends side with friends. The boss puts a contract out on the lot of them… Macao goes kapow.
Director Johnny To knows the kind of crap he need to include to make a bang-bang movie seem deep, so there’s a lot in Exiled about friendship, honour and mainland China’s relationship with its colonies. Pay no heed. Exiled is as much about subtext as the average episode of The A-Team. What it’s really about (like The A-Team) is guns, and how guns are cool. To is a shrewd beggar when it comes to profitable movie subject matter, and he knows damn well that if you put a gun in a movie, men will watch (the more guns, the more men). John Woo knew this. Hell, D.W. Griffith had it figured. In a recent interview, French director Michel Gondry lamented: “…If you don’t have a gun in your film, you have to work double hard.” Exiled works hard only where it knows its efforts will be rewarded. So yeah, there’s some stuff about honour, a bit about China, but mostly: it’s about guns.
Two scenes that stand out: one, where the hitmen bring the body of their friend back to his wife, and she opens fire on them; two, where the hitmen watch a security guard calmly shooting gangsters out of trees. Both these scenes are faintly ridiculous, but they both underscore the movie’s great truth: Johnny To likes scenes where people open fire on each other. Hong Kong veteran Josie Ho is all that you want her to be as the trigger-happy widow; baby strapped to her chest (à la Hard Boiled), gun in hand (ditto), blowing away hitmen with her beautifully wounded eyes. As a Steve McQueen-esque security guard, Shiu Hung Hui is a walking advert for the upside of cigarettes (even a gunfight doesn’t stop him smoking). John Woo is a better director of bullet-swapping, but Johnny To has a way of making even bad editing seem like a stylistic choice. His good lighting saves even the dumbest of scenes (see also: Wong Kar Wai).
So why do critics give Hong Kong movies such an easy ride? They’re junk for the most part, yet to read the reviews you’d think Michelangelo Antonioni was behind the lens. Something about Hong Kong seems to bestow action movies with a now-aura, a sense that they’re about globalization – how we live in a world where vast, implacable forces (i.e. China) put pressure on individual lives. No matter that it’s the same cops ’n robbers horseshit Hollywood’s been peddling for years; Hong Kong gives it a fresh sheen, a second gun, a new language. Exiled is as good (and as bad) as most American action movies, it just comes from a better home.