Exiled: A stylish mix of Sergio Leone swagger and John Woo elegance

Johnnie To’s Exiled has a well-choreographed 20-min opening sequence that would’ve made Sergio Leone shriek in delight if he were alive today: Four men rap on the door of the apartment of a lonely young woman. These men have come in two pairs, looking for her husband. “He doesn’t live here”, she tells them. But they know she is lying.

It appears that one pair is here to protect him and the other to kill. A while later, the husband appears. He goes in and the men follow. He takes out a gun from a cabinet, and the men take out theirs. They wait for him to load it. As soon as he is done, a gun fight ensues. And it is over before it has even begun.

It is just there to give you a small taste of what is about to follow – a promise of great things to come. There is a Buddhist zen-like quality to details that precede this sequence. The men wait patiently outside. They are dressed in long leather jackets, smoking cigars. Apparently, they know each other. The gun fight is not an ordinary one.

To is well prepared for his audience – he knows that anyone who loves this sort of stuff must’ve watched every John Woo film more than thrice. The challenge for him is to provide something fresh, and he succeeds, greatly. The beauty is in the details: long curtains flutter in the strong winds; the men move around in slow motion and the wife is sitting hunched over in a room, deep in prayer while all this destruction is going on.

And there is a cooker inside the kitchen letting out its steam – being symbolic, I guess. When the noise ends, there is a truce; nobody is hurt. The husband suggests they sit down and talk. They break out the furniture, cut vegetables and prepare dinner. The mood is jovial. Someone finds a bullet in their soup and one dude, seeing this, spits out his spinach. Laughter all around. They even take group photographs.

This is something you don’t see in a Leone film. What follows it is even more unusual and delightfully so. The two men who came to kill the husband haven’t changed their minds, in spite of all the fun they had together a while back. They let him know that they’ve just given him more time, that’s all. Their boss, who ordered the hit, is impatient.

Meanwhile, they all decide to make good use of this additional time by undertaking another assignment, together. We get another kickass gun fight which takes place inside a seafood restaurant and produces outcomes that are tragic and at times, amusing and darkly comic. These men approach death with a sense of humor. There is a sub-plot involving a gold heist and a final bloody aftermath that makes good use of a discarded Red Bull can.

This is basically a modern Western taking place in Chinese territory. The sexy guitar score and harmonica constantly reminds us that it is one while enhancing all the coolness that is on display. The balletic gun fight has an elegance that is very much John Woo and the loyalty and camaraderie of the men evoke Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. I consider this one of To’s Top 3 films alongside Triad Election and Vengeance.

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