In a Hong Kong diner several months before the peninsula was to be handed back to mainland China in 1997, I witnessed a scene between a portly local businessman and a suited gaijin. They were discussing a deal over a plastic table groaning with food — the gaijin had no appetite, but the Hong Kong businessman was shoveling it in, pausing every minute or so to spit out a prawn tail. The gaijin was no match for this businessman, and the conditions of the deal seemed one-sided. Whenever the gaijin protested, the businessman shot out, “No time for nonsense, no time!” and resumed masticating.
I knew there was a moral in this about economics, stamina and gastronomy, and that it marched to the tune of the businessman’s mantra: “No time for nonsense!” It also summed up the mood of Hong Kong at the time. The mainland Chinese were about to take over. So much had to be done. There certainly was no time for nonsense.
The same mood is duplicated, then multiplied by 1,000, in “Exiled,” the latest from Hong Kong’s martial-arts maestro Johnny To. To’s last foray into international cinema had been the slow-paced violent thriller “Election” two years back. This had caused fans to remark that the director was losing a lightness of touch, was getting weighty and philosophical. No such criticism can be leveled at “Exiled,” a tight, explosive package crammed with all that’s enthralling about Hong Kong action movies.
Most notable is the pace: “Exiled” moves, or rather sprints, at the speed of someone on a direly urgent mission. To doesn’t waste a single frame to dawdle over any but the most important and memorable details — the closeup of a man as he’s about to die, his last gesture a flick of his hand pushing his shades onto his eyes; a father smiling at his infant son as he clasps a tiny anklet over the baby’s foot; a communal meal prepared with loving care and consumed with loud slurps and the nonstop clicking of chopsticks. And then the movie is up and running again, and I hear the businessman’s mantra: “No time, no time for nonsense!”
The setting, suitably, is 1998 in Macau — 48 hours before Hong Kong’s neighbor is officially returned to China, and roughly one year after Hong Kong was annexed to the mainland. Two gangsters, Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet) pound on the door of Wo’s (Nick Cheung) apartment with the intention of killing him. Two other men — Cat (Roy Cheung) and Tai (Francis Ng) — have come to prevent the hit. All five are childhood friends (a sepia-colored photo inserted like a ghostly flashback attests to their long friendship), but Wo had botched up an assassination attempt on the head mobster, Boss Fay (Simon Yam), and Blaze was handpicked by Fay to take out Wo.
“Why did you come back?” growls Blaze, pained by the predicament of having to murder an old friend. “I was tired of running,” replies Wo.
Inside the apartment, there’s a protracted, elegantly choreographed shootout, but strangely no one is hurt. After running out of bullets, the five agree to lay down their weapons and Wo asks for a 24-hour grace period in which to pull off a job (“I want to leave money for my wife and son.”) The four friends agree to help. “After the job, I’m going to have to kill you,” says Blaze to Wo, but he doesn’t sound like he means it. “Yeah, OK,” Wo replies.
Wo is a humorless hit man of appalling toughness — after being thrown out of a sixth-floor window with a half-sutured bullet wound in his stomach, he crawls into a car and manages to get home. Wo’s the action hero, but Blaze is the one to watch: A bad shot and nicotine-stained coward, who wears a bulletproof vest when everyone else is taking it in the ribs with no other protection besides their Zegna suits. But in the last five minutes, Blaze morphs into a formidable gangster with a heart of steel and the bullets pour out of his gun in an elegant arc-spray as he himself falls back, the blood bursting in a cloud of red before hitting the wall in a Jackson Pollock splatter. He slumps, and smiles and at that moment all I wanted to do was run into the screen and light him a cigarette.