Review: Patrick Tam’s “After This Our Exile”

Patrick Tam, one of the finest filmmakers of the 80’s Hong Kong new wave, with his Malaysia-set masterpiece After This Our Exile, returned in 2006 from his own 17 year exile from filmmaking to deliver an epic melodrama which unfolds with uncommon grace, delicate patience, and mesmerizing beauty. Aaron Kwok, as the central character Cheong-shing, a perpetually down-and-out, dissolute gambler who can’t help dragging himself and everyone else around him into abject degradation, delivers a commanding performance, a magnetic presence even as he exhibits shockingly selfish behavior.

At the film’s outset, Cheong-shing’s wife, Lin (Charlie Young) has made an unsuccessful attempt to leave him, stretched beyond the limits of her patience with Shing’s gambling habit and irresponsible ways, often neglecting both her and their son (Gow Ian Iskander), who is referred throughout as “Boy.” She is also angry that he refuses to enter into a legal marriage. Cheong-shing works as a cook in a local restaurant. After Boy skips school to find his mother packing up her things, he runs to retrieve his father. Cheong-shing forcibly pulls Lin out of her cab, and locks her in their bedroom, leaving Boy to keep an eye on her.

Cheong-shing is in deep debt to gangsters he continually tries to keep at bay with futile promises to repay. He is a bully and a blowhard, constantly yelling at those around him, and has an incredibly short-fused temper. Yet he is also an anxious, fearful man, afraid of abandonment by those he mistreats so carelessly. Lin finally is able to leave him for good, along with the lover she has been keeping on the side, by feigning sickness before they are to go on a cruise, letting Cheong-shing and Boy go on without her. Shing rages at her departure, and in a heart-wrenching scene, sobs in front of his son, demanding to know why Lin has left him. At this point, the film truly embodies its original Chinese title, “Father and Son,” focusing intensely on this central relationship. Cheong-shing proves to be a poor caretaker for Boy, gambling away all their money, letting the light bill lapse, and leaving Boy unable to ride the bus to school, since his father cannot pay the monthly fare. The gangsters show up, looking for Cheong-shing. They move from their shabby, spartan home to an even shabbier hotel room across town. There Cheong-shing meets up with Fong (Kelly Lin), a neighboring prostitute with whom he initiates a torrid affair. Meanwhile Lin, in her new home with her new husband and a baby on the way, tries to reconnect with Boy.

Patrick Tam is in full command of every element of his prodigious artistry. The melodrama is quite moving, but never tips over into bathos, thanks largely to Aaron Kwok’s tough performance that doesn’t angle for audience sympathy. Cheong-shing thinks nothing of using other for his needs, from pimping Fong out to an elderly gentleman to forcing Boy to rob people’s homes while he acts as a lookout. He embodies a tragic figure who weaves a path of destruction all around him, always making feeble promises to change his ways. The moody and lush images are provided by ace cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, whose images of Malaysia’s beautiful landscapes form a counterpoint to the human misery and heartache we witness. These natural sights are contrasted with the decayed hotel rooms, restaurants, and dreary bus stations that the characters inhabit. After This Our Exile is a welcome return for this influential filmmaker, an early mentor to Wong Kar-wai, largely responsible to the development of Wong’s style of filmmaking. Tam’s film shares more than a few affinities to Wong’s Days of Being Wild (for which Tam served as an editor). Tam jettisons Wong’s swooning nostalgia for a rawer form of chamber drama, which highlights his character’s capacity for extreme cruelty. After This Our Exile proves that Hong Kong cinema, while currently somewhat in decline, is still capable of producing brilliant work.