Making an extraordinary comeback after being absent for a long 17 years since 1989's MY HEART IS AN ETERNAL ROSE, acclaimed '80s Hong Kong new-wave filmmaker Patrick Tam returns with a decidedly simple, but remarkably poignant domestic drama, AFTER THIS OUR EXILE.
Shing (Aaron Kwok), once a handsome ladies' man has becomes a no-good, abusive father who doesn't realize that his family is about to fall apart. His battered wife, Lin (Charlie Young) plans on leaving him anytime soon since she finds Shing doesn't express much love to her like he used to. That leaves their son Lok-Yun (Goum Ian Iskandar), an innocent kid caught in the middle of the family wreckage, who only wishes that his father and his mother will get along. Still, there's no doubt one can blame Lin for running away. Shing leaves her no dignity, especially he's going as far as embarrassing his wife at the public and even hits her, before finally locking her up inside the bedroom. To make things worst, Shing is also heavily in debt and that Lin has been sick and tired of being responsible for paying his debt. When she sees her opportunity, she leaves Shing and Lok-Yun behind. Angry and frustrated, Shing's life becomes increasingly off-balance: he loses his job, the loan sharks are pursuing him to pay up and he's nearly penniless. Still he has a loyal son by his side but as each day passing by, the father-and-son bond between Shing and Lok-Yun threatens to fall apart as well, especially when Shing forces him to commit stealing.
Winners of 3 prestigous 43rd Taiwan's Golden Horse Film Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (Aaron Kwok) and Best Supporting Actor (Goum Ian Iskandar), director Patrick Tam proves that it doesn't have to take an elaborate set or sophisticated theme to spin out a great movie. In a year where Hong Kong film industry churned out more junk-food and brand-name, undernourished varieties, there's no doubt AFTER THIS OUR EXILE is something that truly stands the term of "quality-filmmaking".
Patrick Tam and Tian Kai-Leong's screenplay is as simple as it goes, since the story about father-and-son's conflicted relationship is nothing new whatsoever. Possessing nothing more than a bare bones storytelling and numerous scenes that gradually repeated upon itself than elaborate plot development, Tam still manages to craft out an engaging piece of cinematic experience. His direction is crisp and precise, while brilliantly using minimal camera movements and static shots to make every scene as crucial as it goes. He certainly understands the language of cinema, where he doesn't result into forced emotions or sappy sentimentality often found in this kind of domestic genre but rather let the action speaks for itself.
The characters are also well-drawn, as Tam has painstakingly made the breaking family ties between Shing, Lin and Lok-Yun with genuine complexity, yet downright recognizable enough for us to root deeply with them. Gone is his pretty-boy caricature, as Aaron Kwok has finally matured as a distinguished actor who actually knows how to act. Forget about his half-hearted attempt towards his supposedly compelling role in DIVERGENCE (2005) which borderlines into overacting, this one is his real and complete deal. He gives an emotionally-complex, bravura performance that make great use of his gruff voice, telling body language as well as vacant and wild expression that reveals a frighteningly abusive father he is. Newcomer and Malaysian-born Goum Ian Iskandar is beautifully understated as an innocent boy who soon learning the hard way living with his abusive father, while Charlie Young, who isn't known for dramatic role other than looking pretty is surprisingly credible as the estranged wife.
The production values are top-notch, with Mark Lee's golden cinematography breathes life out of the gorgeously mundane Malaysia setting which shot on location in Ipoh.
Note: this is a review based on the 120-minute Hong Kong theatrical cut, which exists because the distributors has found Patrick Tam's original 160-minute cut is somehow overlong. A must-see.