A double treat at EIFF — a screening of Johnnie To’s gracefully kinetic action-crime flick EXILED, followed by a Q&A with the man himself. Like Walter Hill’s THE WARRIORS in a way, sort of, EXILED throws the audience into a moving plotline right away, zero prep, and lets you catch up with who the people are as you go. This is made smoother by the fact that every scene is a set-piece, a masterclass, a triumph of some aspect of film technique. Just the choreography of four men getting into a car becomes a piece of film poetry.
(Never liked John Woo’s kitsch style — mawkish mayhem – this is altogether different, though there is a cute baby, a hilarious squirming podbert of a thing. To enjoys pointing handguns at it, but you know it’ll be fine.)
According to To, he never has a complete script when he starts shooting, due to the extreme tightness of Hong Kong movie schedules. When someone referred to him not needing a script, he corrected them: “It’s not that I don’t NEED a script. I just don’t HAVE a script.”
This was fascinating to me since EXILED has a classic moment of set-up pay-off that must have surely been concocted in mid-process. Just after the halfway mark, the story, dealing with four hitmen sent to Macau to waste a former friend, runs utterly out of juice. The friend is dead, and the protagonists are literally wandering around in a wilderness, tossing a coin to decide each change of direction.
It seemed evident to me that someone in the writing process hit a wall, then said, “We need to go back and create an earlier scene which establishes something that’s going to happen, then let the audience forget about it, then surprise them by having it happen HERE.” So the gang run straight into a gold shipment they can heist — a wild coincidence, but one the viewer accepts because it was set up earlier.
My guess is that’s exactly how it went down, only To must have encountered the problem on location rather than at the computer keyboard, and resolved to insert the set-up scene in order to make this pay-off possible. But who knows? This connects, very nearly, with Billy Wilder’s dictum, “If there’s a problem in the third act, the solution is in the first act.”
I stuck my hand up and asked To how he prepares his visuals under these tough circumstances (something I was later told he hates to discuss). As he explained (all through an interpreter), he’s constantly thinking of ideas for shots and sequences, so there is a mass of preparation. But nothing can be decided until the day, when he gets to the location or set and sees what’s possible. So in a sense there is massive planning, and in a sense there is none at all. And the desperate energy of all this does find an expression in the film, as does the looseness of plotting– hard for the audience to predict the next scene if the people shooting it didn’t know what it was going to be until the day.