Review: ‘After This Our Exile’

Eighties Hong Kong helmer-turned-editor Patrick Tam makes an extraordinary return to the director's chair after 17 years with "After This Our Exile." Father-and-son drama, set in a timeless, rural Malaysia populated by Chinese characters, is a highly tuned, beautiful looking artifact that's way too long and repetitive at more than 2½ hours, but engenders respect for its precision and ambition.

Eighties Hong Kong helmer-turned-editor Patrick Tam makes an extraordinary return to the director’s chair after 17 years with “After This Our Exile.” Father-and-son drama, set in a timeless, rural Malaysia populated by Chinese characters, is a highly tuned, beautiful looking artifact that’s way too long and repetitive at more than 2½ hours, but engenders respect for its precision and ambition. Festivals will want this one, though theatrical chances would be improved by cutting 40 minutes, with the present version made available on ancillary as a director’s cut.

Dedicated to “All My Students, Malaysia and Hong Kong,” pic is clearly a work from the heart, and even starts with an intertitle from Tam himself hoping auds will just sit back and surrender to the experience. After world preeming at Pusan, with its European bow a day later at the Rome Film Fest, pic goes out in Hong Kong and China Dec. 1.

Story is largely told through the eyes of a young boy (Gow Ian Iskander) who returns home one day to find his mom, Ling (Charlie Young), packing for a quick exit. Turns out dad, Chow Cheong-shing (Aaron Kwok), a once-handsome ladies’ man, has been abusing her.

Still, the boy’s loyalties are with his father and, after he spills the beans about mom, she gets a terrible beating. Ling leaves, and father and son (the pic’s original Chinese title) are alone. The boy turns to thieving to support Cheong-shing’s gambling habit, and he’s eventually sent to a detention center, where a visit from his father ends in sudden violence. A quiet coda, set some 10 years later, brings down the curtain on a melancholic note.

Tam gives this material, which is fairly thin in plotting terms, a visual rigor and slightly abstract feel that manages to evoke a specific universe. Pic has none of the lengthy takes or alienating direction that often afflicts Chinese art movies.

Tam’s background, in ’80s movies like “The Sword,” “Nomad” and “Burning Snow,” has largely been in the upscale commercial industry.

As a result, though there’s considerable repetition, the movie is beautifully cut, with occasional editorial jazziness and musical eruptions that keep the audience on its toes. On a purely visual level, “Exile” is a sustained treat, with ace d.p. Mark Lee evoking a placid world of memory in his treatment of the Malaysian locations. (Pic was mostly shot around Ipoh.)

Casting mixes actors from all three Chinese territories and gives some of them challenges rarely allowed in their regular careers. As the abused mom, Hong Kong’s Young (“Seven Swords”), now enjoying a second spring after a spell in retirement, comes over as the most natural; Taiwan’s Kelly Lin makes more of a dramatic impression than usual as a woman with whom the father enjoys an intensely carnal fling; and mainlander Qin Hailu cameos as a karaoke bar madam.

Young Gow is fine as the son, but “Exile” is Kwok’s movie, with the actor-singer taking the biggest gamble of his career as the seedy father. Though more a dramatic presence than a real performance, Kwok is still remarkable in the role — a combination of gruff voice, body language and vacant/wild eyes that never develops into award-seeking mannerism.

After This Our Exile

Hong Kong

Production

A Golden Scene release of a Vision Films presentation, in association with Beijing Polybona Film Publishing Co. and Black & White Films, of a Vision Films production. (International sales: Focus Films, Hong Kong.) Produced by Chiu Li-kuang. Executive producer, Leong Lee-ping. Directed by Patrick Tam. Screenplay, Tian Koi-leong, Tam.

Crew

Camera (color), Mark Lee; editor, Tam; music, Robert Jay Ellis-Geiger; art directors, Tam, Cyrus Ho; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Kinson Tsang; associate producer, Cary Cheng; assistant directors, Cheng, Tian. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (Window on Asian Cinema), Oct. 15, 2006. (Also in Rome Film Festival.) Running time: 159 MIN.

With

Aaron Kwok, Charlie Young, Gow Ian Iskander, Kelly Lin, Qin Hailu, Valen Hsu, Faith Yeung, Qin Hao. (Cantonese dialogue)

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