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City on Fire:
Hong Kong Cinema
Lisa Odham Stokes, Michael Hoover
(In Paperback from Amazon)
"Exiled" (aka, Fong juk)
There is a code of conduct in the gangster world of South China as depicted here by director Johnny To... and it has a lot to do with Sergio Leone, Sam Pekinpah and Francis Ford Coppola. And, while excess marks the style of the gunplay action that follows from that code, prolongued reaction closeups on its macho heroes and steam-building silences are the more commanding stylistic features of To's portrait of underground behavior in Macau, a major port city of China. In a unique and satiric depiction of killers and mercenaries for hire, his formula to elevate it to iconic status is to create sypathetic ties to five "good bad guys."
It begins with a pounding on a grey, non-descript door. A woman opens it on two well dressed men. One asks to see Wo. Fear crosses her face as she holds her baby. "Wo isn't here," she says. "All right," he responds. "We'll wait." She watches the two men postition themselves downstairs, outside her two-story apartment. Another two men arrive, recognized by the first two who, at first, keep their distance. The new men knock on the door with the same question, putting the woman into full panic mode. "There's no Wo here," she insists. These two new gentlemen take their own positions on the street.
A policeman's car arrives and halts outside the apartment. Sergeant Chen (Richie Ren) silently watches the tableau as though he recognizes the players in a mob action. One of the first two men throws a fresh cigar at one of the second lot. It's a peace offering, followed by a plea not to kill their old friend Wo. "I've got to," explains the killer. "Boss Fay orders."
Wo (Nick Cheung) finally arrives driving a truck filled with furniture. A former gang member who has fled to escape the wrath of Boss Fay, considered exiled and a renegade with a price on his head, instantly understands what's going on. He amiably leads the four men up into the apartment where hospitality soon turns to violence. The only one exhibiting fear is the woman at the door, Wo's wife Tai (Francis Ng). Guns are pulled, bullets fly, and no one gets hit in the fusillade.
Finally, they agree to a temporary truce. The five gunmen bring the new furniture upstairs and sit down to a meal and a moment of detente... a reunion of old comrades sworn to opposing allegiances. But, the lull for reminiscence isn't permanent and, as the war between gangs plays out, the five men, in a unique take on brotherhood, remain alive through hailstorms of bullets, fearless confrontations, narrow escapes, promises of big payoffs and thriller tensions.
Beautiful Hong Kong actress Ellen Chan weaves her own mercenary specialties through the plotline as a hooker watching the men of warring gangs as though waiting to reward the last man standing. A flash of her leg is enough to stop a man in his tracks but the calculations of an opportunistic mind is never at rest.
One of the Peckinpah contributions to To's storytelling devices is the red mist that appears at a wound to let us know who gets hit during the melees. A powerful musical motif as used by Leone doesn't appear, but To borrows the technique of exploiting the power of a look, a pause, a moment of understanding on the faces of men of the gun, reminiscent of the Italian master's use of the young, laconic Clint Eastwood. The cultural atmospherics of mob dynamics is in debt to "The Godfather," same as many another gangster clone.
Which is not to say that To, in creative collusion with writers Kam-Yuen Szeto and Tin-Shing Yip, is unduly derivative. What To demonstrates is ingenuity and taste in rounding up a cadre of strong guys whose look strikes you with the weight of their lethal intent and purpose, (Nick and Roy Cheung, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Josie Ho, Suet Lam). His adoption of this cinematic spproach gathered from masters of the genre may be an answer to Quentin Tarantino's paying homage to Asian masters of action film as he did in "Kill Bill". One can smell the inspiration.
Indeed, the film's underplayed tensions in a game of courage and quick death, the campy excess in the expenditure of ammunition, the beneficent outcomes of macho standoffs, has border-crossing sophistication written all over it, which To and his players maintain in a conspiracy of tension. The satiric humor of it calls to mind "Big Deal on Madonna Street" (1958) and its clone "Welcome to Collinwood" (2002) for its self-aware episodes of unpredictable fortune and fatality. Add to that mirthful fantasy. You will not get hurt watching this film.
Fans of those films will love this one, as well, although some audiences will adamently refuse to line up behind its droll stylism. For me, it's a daring stab at sounder comedy-drama material from Asia than the more lowbrow chop-socky export.
~~ Jules Brenner