The Exodus (Chu Aiji Ji)

Bottom Line: Part cat-and-mouse chase, part cautionary tale, women get the last laugh in this cynical battle of the sexes.

Toronto International Film Festival

HONG KONG -- Blue Beard gets his comeuppance in Pan Ho Cheung's "The Exodus" ("Chu Aiji Ji"), a suave black-comedy thriller about men-killing women. The Hong Kong director's sixth feature has climbed onto the festival bus that takes off in Toronto, gears up for competition at San Sebastian and will make stops at Pusan and Tokyo.

"The Exodus" opens with a surreal nondialogue sequence accompanied by a haunting adagio by Mozart and a mesmerizingly long take that lasts a full five minutes, with a photo of Queen Elizabeth II occupies the first frame (a pre-1997 setting that also signifies female sovereignty). The camera gradually tracks down a corridor to reveal "snorkelers" hammering a man into a bloody pulp, but the scene's symbolic significance does not hit home until later.

Back in the present, Sgt. Tsim Kin Yip (Simon Yam) interrogates suspect Kwan Ping Man (Nick Cheung), arrested for filming women in toilets. Kwan claims to be investigating a "syndicate of men-killing women" who make their crimes look like natural or accidental deaths. Yip dismisses him as a lunatic -- until his statement goes missing and he retracts his words.

Despite warnings from his superior Mdm. Fong, Tsim latches on to the case, causing a growing rift with his wife Amy (Annie Liu). Kwan goes missing, and is found dead. Tsim tracks down Kwan's foxy ex-wife Pun Siu Yuen (Irene Wan), but his ardour for investigation dissipates when Pun seduces him. Meanwhile, Amy's buried past, including the ritual meaning of her collection of figurines, begins to surface.

Since "Isabella," Pang has been straining at seriousness. The film's music is composed with a classical resonance and the pace and editing has slowed down, with nondialogue, geometrically composed and arty long takes replacing his early, frenetically edited, spoofy and coarsely wacky romps.

A sense of women's omniscience and omnipotence is effectively conveyed. The characters' interactions are mostly captured stealthily in long and medium shots through a window or from a height, to simulate the view from a surveillance camera. The dominant visual tone is steely blue and gloomy green, with occasional outbursts of red -- evoking on a sensory level the predominance of yin. Actors display a deliberate opacity of expression that enhances the mysterious lurking beneath the mundane.

Tsim is initially depicted like a "Twilight Samurai" who'd rather go home to his wife than drink with the boys. So his infidelity is too sudden and unconvincing, unless Pang's is trying to make the point that men are by nature corrigible, which puts him on as morally dodgy grounds as the inference that women have a murderous axe to grind.

Is this radical feminism or the paranoia of a misogynist? The film does not delve into such issues. It's more of an exercise in polished structure and clever twists. Pay attention to the dialog or you won't get the ending.

Filmko Entertainment/Making Film Prods Ltd. production
Director: Pang Ho Cheung
Writers: Pang Ho Cheung, Cheuk Wan Chi, Jimmy Wan
Producers: Pang Ho Cheung, Stanley Tong
Executive producer: Harvey Wong
Director of photography: Charlie Lam
Production designer: Man Lim Chung
Music: Gabriele Roberto
Editor: Stanley Tam
Tsim Kin Yip: Simon Yam
Amy Cheung Fong: Annie Liu
Pun Siu Yuen: Irene Wan
Kwan Ping Man: Nick Cheung
Maggie Shiu: Mdm. Fong Chi Tsing
Running time -- 94 minutes
No MPAA rating