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EXILED, aka FONG JUK (2006) is a classic case of one thing leading to another. It all begins with a simple knock on a door, and ends with a bunch of guys lying around a blood-splattered hotel lobby, riddled with bullets. How the one thing leads to the other is a tense, exciting, and unconventional narrative that is as visually and emotionally involving as it is violent.
Wo (Nick Cheung), a former member of Boss Fay's gang, has returned to town to settle down with his wife and baby. Boss Fay, however, hasn't forgotten that Wo once tried to assassinate him and sends hit men Blaze and Fat to Wo's place to kill him. But Wo has an ally--another gang member, Tai (Francis Ng), who participated in the assassination attempt but got away clean because Wo took the rap for him. Tai and his main man Cat show up at Wo's at the same time as Blaze and Fat, and their tense stand-off turns into a blazing gun battle right there in Wo's livingroom.
Complicating things is the fact that all five men grew up together and are are boyhood pals. Eventually Wo convinces Blaze to allow him time to earn some money for his family to live on before he's whacked. So after a friendly sit-down dinner and a few waves of nostalgia and good spirits among the men (they even help Wo finish moving his furniture into the house), they all set off to see Jeff, the guy who lines up jobs for Boss Fay's men. Jeff offers them a high-paying assignment to kill an up-and-coming rival gang kingpin, Boss Keung.
The hit is to take place in a restaurant that night, but Boss Fay and his bodyguards show up unexpectedly and there's an awesome gun battle with the three rival groups blasting away at each other. Wo is severely wounded and is taken to an underground surgeon, but Boss Fay shows up there as well to get his painful groin injury patched up (ha ha, he deserves it), and there's yet another incredible shoot-out that is often--dare I say it?--"balletic." (Ooh, I said it!)
The gunfight sequences in this movie are fast, loud, and beautifully directed and edited, as well as being very imaginatively staged. Sometimes things happen so fast, in fact, it's hard to keep score. But they're a visual treat, as is most of EXILED.
As things go from bad to worse for our five heroes, with both bosses out for their blood and nowhere to run, their rekindled bond of friendship grows ever stronger. They soon find themselves becoming increasingly protective of Wo and his family, and their feelings of brotherhood and loyalty to one another begin to overrule all else.
The story by Kam-Yuen Szeto (who co-wrote the awesome 2005 action/thriller KILL ZONE) and Tin-Shing Yip just keeps on taking us places we don't expect to go, right up to the bullet-riddled finale. There's an armored truck robbery that takes an unexpected twist, and when Wo's wife Jin (Josie Ho) gets involved in the whole mixed-up mess herself and falls into Boss Fay's clutches, his former gangmembers must decide which is more important--loyalty among friends, or their lives.
Prolific Hong Kong director Johnny To takes his own sweet time getting from one action scene to the next, but each sequence in between is fully mined for its pictorial potential (and backed by a really cool musical score). There's so little exposition to guide us through what's going on that at times it's like watching a silent movie--you have to pay attention because the images are telling the story, which is what cinema is all about in the first place.
Blaze, as played by Anthony Wong, is a fascinating character. At first he seems like the standard, steely hit man with shades, a trenchcoat, and ice water for blood. But we soon discover that he's a thoughtful man with a sense of honor that gradually begins to override his loyalty to Boss Fay, who hardly deserves it. Simon Yam plays Boss Fay with loads of negative energy and is wonderfully monstrous--a far cry from his role as a crime-busting cop in KILL ZONE. The rest of the cast is fine as well, and the ensemble playing is good.
EXILED is about what happens when professional killers rediscover their souls--which can lead to all sorts of problems. It's also about choices, and how one thing leads to another. This is illustrated when Blaze acquires the habit of flipping a coin to conquer the indecisiveness his current situation has afflicted him with. Finally, there comes a point where he tosses the coin away after realizing that--probably for the first time since he can remember--his heart is telling him what to do, and he's listening.
Added: Tuesday, November 13, 2007
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