Patrick Tam, absent from the director's chair since 1989's My Heart is That Eternal Rose, is experiencing a well-respected comeback with the somber After This Our Exile. Exile swept the Hong Kong Film Awards stealing Johnny To's thunder for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Tam was building quite a career in the 80s as a successful director of somewhat uninspiring but entertaining action films, including Final Victory (1987) written by Wong Kar-wai. Switching hats he took on editing, notably for Wong on Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time and more recently on To's Election. It is with the strength of this resume that Tam assembled Exile into the surprise darling of the critics.
The Chinese title translates literally to a more apt title, Father and Son. The father is Shing played by pop star Aaron Kwok and the son is Lok-Yun, mostly referred to as Boy, played by young new-comer Goum Ian Iskandar. The tumultuous downward spiral of the father/son relationship begins when Lim, Lok-Yun's mother, leaves, taking with her the only glimmer of hope and stability in Shing and the young boy's life. Slowly it is revealed to us that the root problems lie in Shing's addiction to gambling, as he drifts from job to job, dodges loan sharks, and manipulates everything and everyone around him for cash. Lok-Yun's hopeless adoration of his father leaves him vulnerable to his volatile temperament and irresponsible decisions.
At some point I simply gave up on finding any redeemable qualities in the adult characters. The poor boy is mentally and physically abused by his father and conveniently forgotten about by his mother (played by lost little bird Charlie Young) and completely ignored by the prostitute (Kelly Lin) his father decides to "befriend." The languid pace of the film is similarly spare on the details, doling out glimpse of why life with Shing must have become unbearable for Lin. After This Our Exile is the story of Shing hitting rock bottom without the overt tags of health- sickness-recovery. It's not surprising that the directors preferred cut was 160 minutes, instead of the 120 minute theatrical version I watched. Those extra forty minutes are reportedly spread out over the entire film: an extra scene here and there that may have drawn out some sympathy for the characters.
While the story is likely to frustrate some, there are three components that make After This Our Exile extraordinary: Tam's precise editing, Mark Lee's impeccable camerawork, and Aaron Kwok's amazing ability to commit to the character. Tam's very conscious editing has a way of lulling you into the film, and suddenly tugging you back out, working seamlessly with Mark Lee's cinematography. Mark Lee (aka Mark Li Pin Bing, Lee Pin Bing, etc) is best known as Hou Hsiao-hsien's cinematographer, but has had his hand in some of the most beautiful films coming out of Asia: Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, Tian Zhuangzhuang's remake of Springtime in a Small Town, and Tran Anh Hung's Vertical Ray of the Sun, just to name a few. However, it is Aaron Kwok's acting, easily the best of his career, that stands out. Kwok has always struck me as a pop star first and an actor second. He has made conscious decisions away from that choosing projects like Throwdown and Divergence that started to break the mold, but never went so far to impress. In Exile, the adorable pop star is completely gone, and Kwok is totally convincing as the pathetic compassionless bastard Shing.
While I would be hard pressed to call After This Our Exile a better film than Johnny To's Exiled, they are, in all fairness, different films. Tam's return to the director's chair and subsequent critical comeback is no accident. Having completed the script over ten years ago, this was a project that Tam seems to have personally fostered every step of the way. If it the Hong Kong film industry is guilty of handing out awards to someone they feel sympathetically indebted to, so be it. In the end, After This Our Exile is a much stronger film than most that receive false accolades.