Most moviegoers consider Johnnie To’s gangster films efficiently made shoot-’em-ups; some owe a significant debt to the spaghetti western. And they are made with consummate skill: the action’s conveyed in carefully composed scenes, not an instant wasted. Exiled (2006), in which two gangsters try to kill former colleague Wo (Nick Cheung) in retaliation for his botched assassination attempt against their leader, Boss Fay (Simon Yam), has its share of entertaining twists and gripping action. But like many great filmmakers–Howard Hawks, John Ford, Raoul Walsh–Hong Kong-based To makes movies that are both commercially viable and animated by a powerful artistic vision. In fact To’s worldview can take precedence over the narrative. His characters (mostly male) seem oddly interchangeable despite having distinct personalities and appearances; they’re often melded by To’s constantly moving camera. In the film’s many shoot-outs, sight lines and shooting lines shift violently in the frame. Characters also make alliances or turn on one another in unexpected ways.

These qualities set To’s work apart from the classic Hollywood westerns and gangster films his movies otherwise resemble. In those earlier works, the main characters are not only easily recognizable, they’re the focal points of scenes. Medium shots and close-ups and the way the characters’ movements are tracked by the camera or edited tend to give the protagonists heroic status. But To constantly moves his camera even when his subjects are still, creating a space that’s much larger than that surrounding an individual: one camera movement connects to the next and the next, and to the occasional static shot for contrast, creating a matrix or labyrinth. After the gangsters come to Wo’s apartment to ask his wife (Josie Ho) where he is, then leave, we see her observing them on the street. Next the camera moves around her baby in its crib as she picks it up in medium shot, then To cuts to a longer shot of her, seated with the infant, seen through an ornate piece of furniture. This quiet moment of togetherness is interrupted as the camera begins circling them, the out-of-focus foreground emphasizing the movement. The effect is to disrupt the silence and return the mother to her place in the narrative–and in fact after the shot ends there’s a knock at her door and a different gangster confronts her.

The almost balletic motions of To’s camera reflect a different view of the relationship of individuals to society than is common in the United States. Here we think of loners as able to make, or remake, worlds. In Hawks’s Red River (1948), Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) founds a great ranch, forges a new cattle trail, and creates much of the action through the force of his will. The more spatially constrained worlds of the former colonies of Hong Kong and Macao–where Exiled is set, just before this Portuguese territory came under Chinese rule–lack a physical frontier, and gangsters have long histories with one another they can’t escape.

The characters’ shifting relationships in Exiled create an almost absurdist tone. Of the four gangsters trailing Wo, two have orders to kill him and two hope to save him. After a shoot-out in Wo’s apartment in which no one is killed, all five sit down to dinner together. The two assassins tell Wo they’ll have to do their job eventually, and when Wo talks about his wish to leave his wife and child cared for, the five of them begin discussing crimes that might earn them big money, from contract hits to the theft of a ton of gold. That robbery becomes part of the plot, leading to one of the shoot-outs–and in another turnaround, the guard who survives helps the gangsters. All these shifting allegiances contribute to the sense that there’s no real right or wrong, especially since the film’s cop is a laughable fraidy cat interested only in his impending retirement.

Critic Andrew Grossman, writing about To’s earlier films, talks about To’s characteristic “nihilistic skeleton.” But like most of the critics I’ve read, Grossman neglects the other side of To’s work: his subtle visual poetry, which is found throughout Exiled. The cinematography values some moments over others: Exiled includes intensely lyrical candlelit images of Wo’s wife, close-ups of gangsters showing genuine emotion, and sentimental final still photos in which the gangsters are seen in happier times. The climactic shoot-out registers the nihilism of the gangsters’ lives, but To distances himself from it, staging it in the time it takes a soda can to fall to the floor in slow motion; the viewer is encouraged to step back from the bloodshed and reflect on how rapidly everything can change.

To articulates the emotional dimension of Exiled cinematically, through his compositions, camera movements, and use of light. His images are sensuous to a fault, and the beauty he finds in faces and objects and surfaces argues for a strong attachment to, not nihilistic distance from, the film’s world. He also sees that world as susceptible to destruction at any instant, which adds a melancholy note to everything we see. Perhaps the single most important moment in the film is its opening: a one-second static shot of a door, rendered quiet and nuanced by the light gently cast over it. This instant of meditative silence is almost immediately interrupted by a loudly knocking hand (as happens several times later), which takes us out of stasis and into history–a history of shifting allegiances, revenge, and bloodletting. The film’s fleeting beauties are counterposed against this reality. Lives are always caught in society’s traps, but what can be seen by the short-lived flicker of a candle flame is what makes them worth living.

WHEN Opens Fri 9/7

WHERE Music Box, 3733 N. Southport

PRICE $8.25-$9.25

INFO 773-871-6604