Dir: Johnnie To. HK. 2006.100mins.

Less concerned than ever to tell an actual story, and more interested in exploring the possibilities ofcinematic language, Johnnie To's latest gang war epicis probably his most eccentric foray yet into the genre. Paying tribute toWesterns of every kind, particularly the spaghetti variety, Exiled sees To brieflyleave Hong Kong underworld elections and move to nearby Macau in 1998, justbefore the island was handed back to China after 400 years of Portuguese rule. Theresult is an orgy of unchained violence in which a small group of professional hitmen join forces against the rest of the world, with thepolice looking the other way.

At times both confusing andenigmatic, Exiled stands as much achance at festivals and on arthouse circuits as itdoes in midnight multiplex slots, where patrons may better appreciate how To deploysthe tools of his trade. The film competed at Venice before appearing at Torontoas a Special Presentation.

Wo (Nick Cheung), akiller fed-up with his career, intends to turn the page and start a new lifefor himself with his wife Jin (Josie Ho) and their baby. But before he has achance to settle down he is visited by four of his former associates.

Two of them, Blaze (AnthonyWong) and his partner Fat (Lam Suet), are sent with specific orders from their bossFay (Simon Yam) to punish Wofor an attempt he made on his life. The other two, Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat(Roy Cheung), staunch believers in principles such as honour and friendshipamong thieves, are intent on keeping Woalive, come what may.

After meticulous preparationand set-up, worthy of Sergio Leone, all five pull out their guns, startshooting in all directions - and then as suddenly stop firing, sit downunscathed to dine together and discuss their next move.

From this point they decideto embark on a series of missions together, including the elimination of alocal crime boss, Keung (Lam Ka Tung),who is heavily guarded by his own henchmen, and the heist of a tonne of goldbullion, dirty money the police are trying to spirit away before the Chinesetake control.

Such assignments naturallyprovoke more gunfights. The first is staged in a night club, the second in animprovised dispensary; after that the audience will surely lose track, as eachbattle gradually merges into the next, each bloodier and more violent than itspredecessor.

When Wo is seriously injured, his partners whisk him to anillegal clinic to be patched up. Fay's people follow, with the crimelord himself bleeding from the crotch, and the fightpicks up again: by the time the magnificent five finally escape there are only four of their number left. As the actionintensifies so it becomes increasingly more abstract, leading to an inevitableapocalyptic climax in which all the money is left in the hands of the women.

First and foremost intendedas a style exercise through which to flex film-making cinematic muscles, Exiled allows Toto excel again in widescreen chiaroscuro compositions.There is almost a mathematical arrangement to the montages in which the tensionintensifies with each new cut, until the screen explodes in paroxysms of brutalviolence, both aural and visual.

There is also a wicked senseof humour at the unlikeliest moments, such as when a crouching medic chases Fayand dabs at his upper thigh wound while the crime boss is busily exchangingshots with the opposition through an open window

At other times he switchesmood suddenly to full blown pathos, like the moment when Wo's wife Jin, through sheer desperation, points agun at her own baby.

Initially it would seemfutile to try and discern any sense from this fierce bloodshed, but itsincreasingly unreal nature seems to metaphorically reflect the state of theworld we live in, playing out like an ambulatory slaughterhouse that knows norules and no morals and out of which there is no logical exit (at one point theremaining hitmen toss a coin to decide their nextmove).

At this point, theindividual has to make up his mind whether to continue playing the game as a proxyfor others or stand up for himself and what hebelieves in. The ending, with the horde of unclaimed gold from which none ofthe killers can profit, evokes memories of such classics as The Treasure Of TheSierra Madre.

To, working through as usualthrough his own Milkway Images production company, isafforded his usual degree of freedom and uses many actors and technical crew hehas employed before, usually more than once. They include expert editor DavidRichardson, whose imaginative input is essential to To's work. Cameraman Chang SiuKeung helps the director summon up an apotheosis ofmayhem, which often resembles a free improvisation on the given theme - onemight as well call it the failure of struggle for survival - that is destinedto bawl over all To's regularfans.

Production companies
Milkway Image

International sales
Media Asia Films

Executive producer
John Chong

Johnnie To

Yau Nai Hoi
Szeto Kam Yeun
Yip Tin Shing

Cheng Siu Keung

David Richardson

Production design
Tony Yu

Guy Zerafa

Main cast
Anthony Wong
Francis Ng
Nick Cheung
Josie Ho
Roy Cheung
Simon Yam
Lam Ka Tung
Richie Jen