Andrew Wai Keung Mak and Alan Siu Fan Mak, 2002, 100 mins., starring Andy Lau,
Tony Leung, Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang.
Y'know, sometimes the sheer variety of movies
from Hong Kong thoroughly floors me. For such a seemingly small
(OK, smallish) place, the number of films which Apple
Towers has in its possession from the territory is massive - and
that's just from the more way-out end of the market. Let's not
even talk about the mainstream romances, action movies, rom-coms
and kung fu movies. So it's no great surprise then that Hollywood,
fresh from rifling through the cinematic archives of Japan, has
struck on the Hong Kong movie industry as The Next Big Thing. And
the latest movie to get the Asian remake treatment is Infernal
Affairs, a seemingly bog-standard police procedural, albeit
with a twist, that was a huge hit back in 2002.
And, boy, what a twist Infernal Affairs has. A big enough
success to spawn two sequels, it's the story of how two police
trainees, virtually oblivious to the other's existence, work on
both sides of the law. It's a tense, edgy study of two men who
are both pretending to be something they are not and trying to
reconcile their double lives.
Chen Win Yan (Tony Leung, suitably tortured) and Lau Kin Ming
(Andy Lau, suitably smarmy) were both contemporaries at police
training academy, only for Yan to be publically expelled for misconduct.
Secretly, however, he's recruited to work undercover as he's the
class star student, and he begins what is initially a three year
assignment cracking organised crime.
Ten years on, and he's getting a bit tired of it. The only conduct
he has with his employers is via Inspector Wong (a peerless Anthony
Wong) who he virtually pleads with to be allowed back into lawful
society. He's still a cop at heart, and even honours dead colleagues
with a secret salute as the funeral procession passes. But no,
there's one last task to be done: crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang in
a wonderfully malevolent turn) has to be taken down, and fast,
as he's flooding Hong Kong with Thai cocaine.
What neither Wong or Yan know, however, is that Ming, who in this
time has worked his way up the ranks to Inspector, has always been
a mole for Sam and is letting him in on the details of the police
operations against him. Sam, too, is starting to get suspicious
that the cops have a mole in his camp, and moves heaven and earth
to try to find the guy. The operative he puts in charge of the
witchhunt? Why, Yan, of course. And, slowly, Ming becomes aware
who is in fact responsible for the leaks...
All in all then, this is, ostensibly at least, a pretty standard
double-crossing cop thriller. There's nothing terribly innovative
about it - except perhaps the device of Ming being a mole for Sam,
as well as Yan being the good guy working for the bad guys. There's
a fair amount of tension, although tempered somewhat in a strange
way. It's almost as if, in places, the director is afraid to let
rip; the gun battles are strangely lifeless, and even the scene
on the rooftop as Sam's heavies are closing in on Wong and Yan
mysteriously lacks an edge, perhaps because the dialogue is strangely
workmanlike and there's a distinct lack of panic on the part of
Obviously, the movie is trying to say something about identity - and
with almost everyone living a lie, it does so rather heavy-handedly.
Ming's career is as corrupt as you can imagine; while Yan, the
golden boy if you will, is only squeaky clean in as much as he's
helping the good guys gain the upper hand. There's little doubt
that his cover has lead him to be as morally dubious as any of
his underworld colleagues. Yet Yan is in many ways portrayed as
a knight in shining armour, he and Superintendent Wong being the
only two "uncontaminated" personalities in the setup. But
Mary, Ming's girlfriend, being an author who's writing a novel
about a man with 28 different personalities is really over-egging
the pudding, and probably just making the point to the multiplex
popcorn-munching crowd that not everyone is as they seem.
But where Infernal Affairs scores so highly is with
the characterisation and, crucially, the casting. In many ways,
this is an acting masterclass; there's nary a foot placed wrongly
by the main protagonists and almost as soon as the main body of
the film begins you're sucked into this world of bluff and double-bluff
so expertly portrayed by its players. Tony Leung plays a lost soul
so competently that loss and loneliness seem to eke through his
every fibre; here is a man so committed to his job he salutes dead
police officers in secret as their funeral cortèges pass, yet who
is almost the perfect gangster, explicitly trusted in a world where
everyone is looking over their shoulders, paranoid. And Anthony
Wong, as Superintendent Wong, who remains Yan's only link back
to the life he gave up a decade before, carries both immense gravitas
and yet a fatherly warmth so important to motivating his man undercover.
The scene where Yan approaches the lifeless corpse of the man who
has kept him going for the last ten years, knowing he dare show
no emotion lest he give himself away, but who nevertheless the
viewer realises must be in emotional turmoil, is absolutely stunning.
Yan says nothing, yet the way Leung plays it it's possible to see
all these thoughts in a single solitary shot (and it's a shot we've
reproduced on this page). It's a remarkable portrayal.
OK, so maybe Eric Tsang as Triad boss Sam is rather cartoon badboy,
and maybe Andy Lau's Inspector Ming is rather too cold and calculating
(probably reflecting the fact he is nothing less than an overambitious
career cop), but it's a minor detail. What we have here in Infernal
Affairs is, remarkably, rather more than the sum of its constituent
parts. The pacing of the film is a little sloppy and it takes a
big set piece just after the midpoint to stop it dragging. The
cinematography is rather bland, and although joint directors Andrew
(Wai Keung) Lau and Alan (Siu Fan) Mak do their best to make the
urban sprawl of Hong Kong look cinematic, there's only so much
you can do with neon lighting and rooftop vistas. But it doesn't
Why? Because a movie like this, a genre piece in a field which
has been done to death already, will stand and fall on the quality
of its characters and performances. And that's Infernal Affairs'
strength, and one the directors know to play to. What is a pretty
standard cop vs gangster potboiler is transformed by actors who
have invested a depth in the characters that some movies might
skip over. That, and the fact that the movie does not end stereotypically,
lifts Infernal Affairs out of its genre roots and remodels
it into not quite a masterpiece, but certainly an above-average
entry in its class.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Will-they-won't-they tension: a bazillion/10
Martin Scorsese: really likes it, clearly
Films in a Similar Style:
The Departed, its 2006 US remake. Um, can't think of many more, to
*** Recommended! ***
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Infernal Affairs Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood
Apple logo on it.
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2006
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
Andrew Wai Keung Lau
Alan Siu Fan Mak
http://www.infernalaffairs.com/2002/ - official HK site, which also has details of the two sequels
http://www.miramax.com/infernalaffairs/ - official US site
http://www.kfccinema.com/reviews/drama/internalaffairs/internalaffairs.html - KFCC do a thorough review of the movie and HK DVD
http://www.cinemasie.com/en/hk/fiche/oeuvre/infernalaffairs/noscritiques.html - three reviews in English from cinemasie
http://www.heroic-cinema.com/reviews/infernal - positive review at Heroic Cinema