Peter Bradshaw

Friday June 15, 2007
The Guardian

What's Cantonese for "badass"? It fits adjectivally with this very enjoyable action thriller with a bracing touch of political satire, from Johnny To, a maestro of the Asian martial arts genre who, on the strength of this, deserves to be as well-known in the west as John Woo.

Calling fight scenes "balletic" has become a cliche, generally used by people who have never seen a ballet, or indeed a fight, in their lives, but To's drama really does have its own muscular, if faintly eccentric choreography. Among the stylisations, it crowbars in real-looking details: what happens when you try to drop a near-corpse out of a sixth-floor window in a built-up area; what happens when a wiseguy tries to pluck a still-smoking slug out of a bullet-proof vest with his finger and thumb. And there are playful touches of self-awareness. To amiably sends up the movie convention that tough guys can effortlessly catch car-keys, or bottles, or guns casually lobbed at them from across the room, without their sunglasses or cigarettes being even slightly out of place.

The setting is the Portuguese colony of Macau in 1998, just before the handback to mainland China, and Macau is a place where fortunes are to be made in property, hotels, gambling. It is a time for particularly frenzied activity: for criminals to stick together, to forge new alliances, or at any rate to clarify boundaries and interests, before the great unknown authority of the Chinese Communist party takes over. These tensions are the background for a sinister assembly of criminals: four shadowy individuals from Hong Kong, Blaze (Anthony Wong), Tai (Francis Ng), Cat (Roy Cheung) and Fat (Lam Suet) are assembled in Macau, where they believe a former associate, Wo (Nick Cheung) is holed up. Two of them have been commissioned by a Hong Kong crime boss to kill Wo; two others are there apparently to stop that happening.

In the background is a cringing police officer, who is terrified to find himself on the scene of an imminent bloodbath: he is on the verge of hanging up his badge and getting his pension, and keeps whingeing that all he wants is a "peaceful transition" from work to retirement. The five protagonists, childhood friends whose relationship has soured, find themselves "exiled" from Hong Kong by happenstance; they are exiled from their former happy friendship by the needs of organised crime, and the inhabitants of Macau and indeed Hong Kong will find themselves exiled from the homelands they have grown up with by the march of history, as they are absorbed back into China.

There is an ear-splitting firefight in Wo's apartment, which ends in a tense standoff, and then a communal meal, over which Wo's wife Jin (Josie Ho) and her baby son are an uneasy presence. The five decide to reunite and escape to find protection and employment with a rival gang boss in Macau, thus making themselves the hated enemies of their former sponsor. The most fraught character is Blaze, played by Wong, known to Asian thriller buffs for his tremendous performance as the cynical cop from the Infernal Affairs movies. He wears tough guy shades all the time, even, and in fact especially, indoors. This is not merely affectation. Blaze is conflicted, stricken with unresolved guilt for having accepted a contract on a friend to whom he owes so much, and obscurely ashamed for having simply failed to deliver on this contract, and creeping away from the angry vengeance from his vexed paymaster. He wants invisibility from his dark glasses, as one contemptuous and homicidal gangster reminds him.

I found Johnny To's last film, Election, to be clotted and slow-moving, with characters who were humourlessly drawn. But this is miraculously different, with a gang of five whose thumbnail-sketched identities are delineated with great efficiency, and differentiated quite well enough for their lives to be interesting and exciting.The best scene is one that follows an appalling shoot-up in a glacial-looking Macau restaurant where the only patrons appear to be gun-toting violence enthusiasts. With a bullet in the thorax, Wo is carried to an underground Mob surgeon who has not yet finished hacking it out and sewing him up, when as the only crooked doctor in the neighbourhood, he finds other injured participants from the same shoot-out being carried into his makeshift surgery, leading to the fight being bloodily and chaotically resumed.

Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs movies were expertly reinvented by Martin Scorsese in Boston as The Departed with Jack Nicholson in the gangboss role. I wonder if a film-maker such as James Gray would be interested in remaking Exiled, or perhaps even the Sopranos creator, David Chase, might use it for a foray into the movies, using the English version to amplify in dramatic terms the guilt and anguish in the relationship between Blaze and Wo. In the meantime, action fans can enjoy this sharp, shrewd thriller.

amiably - sympatycznie

amplify – rozszerzać, wzmacniać, zwiększać

anguish – udręka, katusze

bloodbath – rzeź, masakra

bracing - orzeźwiający

cliché – banał, banalne i powielane rozwiązanie artystyczne

clotted - zapiekły

contemptuous - pogardliwy

creep away - wypełzać

cringing – uniżony, służalczy; zastraszony

crowbar – wyważać łomem

delineate – wyznaczać, kreślić, opisywać

ear-splitting – ogłuszający, rozdzierający

fraught – spięty, napięty

frenzied – rozszalaly, oszalały

genre - gatunek

gun-toting – noszący broń, uzbrojony

handback – zwrot, powrót

happenstance – zbieg okoliczności

hole up – ukrywać się, zaszywać się

homicidal - morderczy

imminent - nieunikniony

lob – rzucać wysoko, rzucać szerokim łukiem

makeshift – prowizoryczny, tymczasowy

on the verge (of) – na skraju, na krawędzi

pluck – wyrwać, wyszarpać

shrewd – trafny, przenikliwy

sinister - złowieszczy

slug  - kula, pocisk

thorax – klatka piersiowa

vexed - zirytowany

whinge – jęczeć, stękać

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