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Infernal Affairs Review

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by Casimir Harlow Jan 10, 2011

    Infernal Affairs Review

    Infernal Affairs

    If you’ve never heard of the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, but you have seen Martin Scorsese’s 2006 remake The Departed, then you have unwittingly done yourself an extreme disservice. For as much as I love Scorsese’s work in general, The Departed was a monumentally worthless endeavour, a total rip-off of a wholly superior film, often a scene-for-scene duplicate, merely playing on the fact that few people in the West would have come across Infernal Affairs, and fewer still could be bothered to read the subtitles that it comes presented with. Honestly, it’s like watching Gus Van Saint’s 1998 remake of Psycho but never having seen Hitchcock’s classic original – you’d be better off being able to erase the memory and starting off afresh. And if you’ve never seen The Departed, then be thankful that you can discover the world of Infernal Affairs for the first time.

    Lau Kin Ming is a member of a Triad gang sent to infiltrate the police force, from recruitment and training through to a position in the Organised Crime Department. Chan Wing Yan is an undercover cop pulled from his police training and recruited into a deep cover operation to pose as a Triad, and work his way up the hierarchy from within. The story follows these two men, the choices they make in the course of their operations, and the line between right and wrong that they both have to cross frequently. Their respective handlers, Superintendent Wong and Triad Boss Sam, are long-term rivals – both aware that they have a mole within each other’s units, but unaware of who exactly that might be. So a cat and mouse game is on to get to the truth, with everybody’s lives on the line.

    The concept behind Infernal Affairs is remarkably simple, but the delivery is simply remarkable. It is a story not a million miles away from that contained within John Woo’s powerhouse action-epic Hard Boiled, or a bunch of Hollywood films even up to and including Woo’s later actioner Face/Off, but it is just as engrossing – yet on a more intelligent level – relying not on pyrotechnic extravagance and guns which hold infinite bullets, but instead on superior acting, clinical storytelling and taut direction. And although the filmwork done by co-Directors Andrew Lau (not to be confused with co-star Andy Lau) and Alan Mak is certainly super-stylish, that clearly does not seal the deal because Woo’s aforementioned films have always had the edge when it comes to style. What really makes this movie different is the acting.

    Andy Lau (Full Time Killer, House of Flying Daggers) and Tony Leung (From the excellent wushu epic Hero, that classic actioner Hard Boiled, and several critically-acclaimed Wong-Kar Wai films, including In the Mood for Love) play their parts flawlessly. Leung initially evokes more sympathy as his undercover cop Chan, often maintaining a pained, almost tragic expression at feeling trapped and under suspicion by his Triad boss Sam (Eric Tsang). You feel like he is going to get caught at any minute, at all times surrounded by ‘bad guys’, whether in the Triads or amidst the police themselves. It’s not a role which you would have expected to see him in, given his film history, but he pulls it off flawlessly. Conversely, Andy Lau’s clean-shaven mole, Inspector Lau, is clinically mechanical in his betrayal of his own police boss, Superintendent Wong (played by Anthony Wong) and it takes some time before his character becomes interesting – although it does happen slowly (unlike in The Departed, where they cut out an entire dimension to him), as his own world begins to collapse around him, and you see him grasp for the little good that he may have left in his life. He’s not a good guy at all, but he’s also not quite a villain.

    Important to the depth of these two main characters are their respective love interests, who are portrayed here by two excellent female actresses, both of whom are simply not given enough screen time. Lau’s writer-girlfriend Mary is played by Sammi Cheng, who utilises some rather strange noises to make the role her own, although she does thankfully manage to remain sweet and loving at all times. Even though she does not know his secret, Mary has made Lau the central character in her book, and has given that character 28 different personalities, so it is safe to assume that she is not as dumb as the noises she makes would suggest.

    Conversely, the closest thing Chan has to a relationship is that with his therapist Dr. Lee Sum Yee, played by Kelly Chen, who is just about as far away as you can get from Robbie Coltrane’s Cracker, in both personality and physique, and who Chan feels he can almost confide in. Dr. Lee is the reverse of Lau’s girlfriend Mary in nature – she barely says a word, or registers any emotion – but it works just to observe her sitting there, quietly contemplating Chan’s situation, and all the while looking effortlessly beautiful, which Kelly Chen is clearly quite adept at. These two help show the inner workings of the two undercover leads, although strangely, they do draft in a third woman to pad out Chan’s love-life before becoming an undercover cop. Elva Hsiao plays his ex-girlfriend, May, who just happens to have a kid that was born around the same time that they split up. Though she only has a couple of minutes’ of screen time, she does still further the depth of Yan’s troubled character, but I think they would have been better off spending more time with the two main female characters instead.

    Of course we can’t forget the two bosses, Anthony Wong’s Superintendent and Eric Tsang’s Triad, both playing out their own game of deadly chess throughout the proceedings, with their respective moles as the pawns in play. There’s a classic scene where the two have a tense exchange about who is going to uncover the mole within their group first, and what the consequences will be, and it sets up the main arc underlying the whole drama – played out in police operations both before and after, where the race is on for each mole to feed information back to their handler undermining each other’s missions, without getting caught. Wong and Tsang are perfectly chosen for the roles, the former making for a stand-up, dedicated police veteran (despite his film history playing flashy gangsters in films like Hard Boiled); and the latter an extremely underrated character actor who always brings a natural charisma to his roles, even if they are almost always crime-related. Without the over-the-top hammy tactics of Jack Nicholson (as shown in his take on the same role in The Departed), Tsang effortlessly manages to bring equal parts menace and strong loyalty to the role.

    Honestly, Infernal Affairs is top quality viewing. And if you’re wondering about the unusual title, then it relates to the Chinese translation of the original title, the endless path, which refers to the Eighth Circle of Buddhist Hell, ‘continuous suffering’, integrating this idea using a play-on-words with the obvious link to the “Internal Affairs” department that the story relates to. It’s an interesting concept because, after watching the movie, you can see how both characters are trapped in their own respective hells, with seemingly no way out.

    Directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak have fashioned a superb Hong Kong crime thriller here, their stylish direction bordering on a minimalist approach (the movie boasts an extremely streamlined, taut runtime of little over an hour and a half), and showcasing some fantastic, clinical photography, bathing scenes in – now-popular – neon green and blue hues, angling the camera sharply, and cranking up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. They rely heavily on both the very clever premise, and the superior acting, to carry this drama, and it clearly pays off when you compare this to more action-orientated alternatives. The actual action is relatively thin on the ground, but what there is, is done extremely well, capitalising on the character and plot development to allow for some truly memorable and significant points of conflict.

    This is a brilliantly-executed, coolly stylish cop thriller from Hong Kong and it should have been the one to win the Awards, and reap the rewards which its shameless rip-off, The Departed subsequently stole (at the Oscars they even had the ignorance to call Infernal Affairs a Japanese crime thriller!). Honestly, Infernal Affairs has far better acting and dialogue; and a more taut, streamlined story, that subsequently has far less plot holes. The Departed borrowed all the best bits and diluted them with unnecessary twists and additions. Just save yourself the grief and the confusion, and watch the original in all its glory. It comes highly recommended as utterly compelling viewing. And please don’t let subtitles put you off, otherwise you’ll not only miss out on this masterpiece, but also on a whole world of fantastic foreign cinema. Modern classics like Infernal Affairs are just the tip of the iceberg.


    It is worth noting, for those familiar with Infernal Affairs, that there has always been something troubling about the English subtitles. This has been apparent across many different releases, on both SD-DVD and now Blu-ray. Firstly the subtitles are very simple and merely carry the basics across. Worse still, there is a truly terrible subtitle coda at the end of the story, which wraps up things in an incorrect way, and comes from the alternative Chinese cut of the movie. BIG SPOILERS AHEAD. Basically the Chinese weren’t too happy about the ambiguous conclusion, and had the filmmakers change it and show Lau arrested at the end (this can be seen as an Alternate Ending on the disc). Thankfully we don’t get this cut, as it would not allow for a sequel (Infernal Affairs III) to even exist, but unfortunately the subtitles here appear to come from this cut, so, in order to explain how Chan’s identity was revealed so that he could get a police burial, they add a terrible (and awfully fast-scrolled) coda which explains how the therapist is the one who reveals his true identity. So, be warned, they got this little bit totally wrong.

    Infernal Affairs II

    The sequel, which is actually a prequel, kicks off in 1991 and takes us all the way through to 1997, and the Hong Kong hand-over (5 years before the events in Infernal Affairs). Following the same characters – only earlier in their lives – the story here is completely linear, unlike its predecessor. Right from the start we see things in a very different light to the previous movie with Inspector Wong and upcoming Triad boss Sam as friends rather than enemies. Of course they are still on opposite sides of the law, but their lower positions in the food chain make it easier for them to still be friends – Sam is just one of many Triad bosses working for an overlord, and Wong is still running undercover operatives, but reporting to his senior officer and friend, Superintendent Lak. Of course, that all starts to change when the Triad Godfather is killed and somebody has to step in to take his place. There are 5 bosses to choose from, but it is the Godfather’s family themselves who step forward, the eldest son Hau taking measures to ensure that the other bosses comply. So begins a downward spiral of events that affects the lives of all of the main players, from Sam and Wong to new recruits Chan and Lau.

    Even if you’ve seen Infernal Affairs, and know, to a certain extent, what to expect from the outcome of this movie, the prequel ride is still fairly surprising and keeps you utterly involved at every stage. The movie has been constructed so well that you could actually watch it first, and then watch Infernal Affairs (and then Infernal Affairs III, the direct sequel), but since it was made after the first movie, it was obviously designed to be watched afterwards. For those familiar with Infernal Affairs, the first story, you will remember that it was set after the hand-over of Hong Kong, but here things are much more complicated. As things build towards the 1997 handover, tensions rise on the street, neither the criminals nor even the authorities fully sure as to what the future might hold once the British have left. It’s a great backdrop, and it adds the dramatic weight of real-world events to the proceedings.

    Personally, I think Infernal Affairs II is actually marginally better than the original. Infernal Affairs is undoubtedly a great movie, but its sequel somehow still manages to be even better. It took me a while to come to this conclusion – three viewings to be exact – and it was a tough call because the first movie is so clearly a masterpiece in itself. It’s like choosing between Alien and Aliens, or Godfather and Godfather Part II – there’s so little between them that it often comes down to simple aspects of personal preference. The thing is, I think I slightly prefer the two older characters: Sam and Wong –whom the focus shifts onto for the sequel – to the two main undercover characters in the original. Certainly, I was not all that impressed by the choice of actors to play the roles of the younger agents in both movies (Edison Chen and Shawn Yue look nothing like the respective older counterparts Andy Lau and Tony Leung), but that’s not really enough to do any significant damage to the movies – and the two youngsters themselves did their jobs well enough to avoid bringing down the rest of the show. But what really clinched Infernal Affairs II as a winner was the expanded presence of the other returning cast members, Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang, as well as the contributions from newcomers to the series Carina Fu and Francis Ng.

    Anthony Wong is once again playing the Inspector from the first movie, Inspector Wong, whose willingness to do anything to catch the criminal masterminds he is after often leads him into deadly territory. It is almost a different side to the previously established character that you get to see here – he is slightly younger and more reckless, although he is just as determined. You can see how his friendship with Sam has sometimes impacted upon his judgement, and you also see a lighter side to him when he’s laughing and joking with either Sam or his own cop partner Lak. Eric Tsang again does a fantastic job as Sam. I liked him in the original Infernal Affairs, but his character depth was fairly limited – here you can see how the changing loyalties within the Triads force him to change his own principles, bend his own moral code, and, over time, become a very different sort of animal. I think his character development is fantastic (they did the same sort of job with him that they did with Lex Luthor in the mixed-bag TV show Smallville).

    Next up for applause is the lovely Carina Fu. I was so tempted to put her first but it was not really justifiable, although she deserves some serious kudos for being a complete newcomer to the series and yet still having just as much presence as the veteran actors that we have gotten to know over two movies now. She plays Sam’s faithful wife, Mary, whose devotion to her husband’s well-being is relentless, but still seems not too far from the machinations of Lady Macbeth, and who turns out to have more surprises in store for the audience than any of the other characters. The changing relationship between Mary and Lau (one of Sam’s most trusted gang members, prior to being assigned to go undercover in the Police) is also well observed, all tying up nicely with the story from the next movie.

    Finally I will mention the other main newcomer, Francis Ng, who plays the lead ‘bad guy’ Hau. I have always had my doubts about both his performance and his character, but again I think that he grew on me after a couple of viewings. Ok, so his portrayal of this integral villain does not initially seem very strong, but on closer inspection, you can see how his calm, intelligent and business-like demeanour hides some seething evil determination. The way that he is in control at every step of the way, right up until the final confrontation, goes well to explain why he stays so cool – for the most part – and I think he made an effective common foe for both the ‘good’ cops and ‘bad’ Triads to unite against.

    Overall, the performances are undeniably fantastic. Sure, we are missing Andy Lau and Tony Leung from the first movie, but Eris Tsang and Anthony Wong more than fill their shoes as the main characters now, and you will not be disappointed by the new additions to the cast. The main story uses all of the main concepts and techniques that the made the original so great, whilst adding to the grandness of the proceedings – leading to the inevitable comparisons with the Godfather Trilogy. Whilst I think that the first Infernal Affairs movie was not broad enough to be compared to the Godfather; this prequel, on the other hand, is. Of course, it is a completely different film – but you will understand the comparisons when you watch the movie: the Mafia-like ‘cleaning house’ process that the Triads adopt, the assassinations, and even the opening ‘hit’ by Lau, all go to make this Godfatheresque. But, I disagree that it is anything like the Godfather Part II – don’t be misled by the title – the fact that they are both sequels does not provoke comparison. Infernal Affairs II is an entity unto itself, which pays its respects more to the original Godfather movie (the falling of the Triad overlord, the succession of his son and the vying of other bosses to take over the territory). Godfather Part II has a story much more similar in time construction to the first and particularly the third Infernal Affairs movies (more on that one later), the only parallel with the second is the development of the Sam character, whose moral quandary gets increasingly murky. Either way, though, Infernal Affairs II is a great movie – and once again the adept Co-Directors and acclaimed cast have given us a stylish, epic vision, full of rich characters and intricate plot machinations. It’s certainly a story which fans of the original should not be disappointed with, and also comes highly recommended as a tremendous companion-piece.


    For those who have somehow read this far but not yet seen any of the Infernal Affairs movies, there may be some significant spoilers ahead, as the story of Infernal Affairs III continues directly on after the climactic conclusion of the first movie.

    Infernal Affairs III

    Running dual storylines, this direct sequel both shows the events over the preceding months before the beginning of Infernal Affairs, intersplicing these scenes with the aftermath of the shootout at the end of Infernal Affairs, and the months of subsequent ongoing investigations. In the flashbacks we see how Triad Boss Sam is trying to broaden his horizons, and do business with Shen, a mysterious arms dealer from mainland China. Undercover cop Chan is dispatched to make the arrangements, but an increasingly cautious Sam decides to mix things up a little in order to see if there are any moles in his group, and find out of Shen is for real. In the midst of his undercover work, Chan is forced to brutally assault a man, and subsequently ordered by his handler, Superintendent Wong, to start seeing a therapist, leading to the introduction of Dr. Lee.

    At the same time we find out what happened after the end of Infernal Affairs. The story picks up with undercover Triad, Inspector Lau, getting exonerated by the Internal Affairs department, after weaving a clever story that explains the shootout in the elevator. With his wife, Mary – who knows the truth – filing for divorce, and with the burden of the blood on his hands, Lau goes on a Macbeth-like path of self-destruction, further fuelled by the revelation that Triad Boss Sam had 5 undercover moles within the police force, and that one of them may be executing the remaining moles in order to keep his cover intact. When Inspector Keung, from the Security Services Department, appears on the scene, Lau begins to worry that he may be found out and, struggling with his past and the horrors he has seen and committed, desperately tries to find a way out.

    Infernal Affairs III is arguably the most complicated of the trilogy, and actually, on a second viewing, I chose to watch it directly after the first movie, which worked much better in terms of continuing storylines. Because the first and third movies are so cleverly intermeshed, a good knowledge of Infernal Affairs is required to fully comprehend what the hell is going on in this movie. But, if you do know all of the details, then this is a pretty intellectually rewarding ride, further developing the characters you already know quite well, and offering up a great back-drop to the previous events, finally also focussing on the aftermath. It truly brings things full-circle, harking back to the original theme borne by the native title “the endless path” and the idea of being trapped in eternal hell – which is essentially what we see in the character of the police mole, Inspector Lau.

    His story has Macbeth written all over it, but it cleverly plays out, with plenty of shady, mysterious new (and old) characters popping up to complicate matters. To this end we see a bunch of old actors return, to join a few new faces. The centre-stage is taken by Andy Lau, on top form here (he won Awards in Hong Kong for his performance in this movie, reflecting the Awards won by Tony Leung for his part in the first film) as the haunted Inspector Lau. He is joined by another returning cast member, Kelly Chen, who resumes her character of undercover cop Chen's therapist, Dr. Lee. She gets screentime in both the flashback therapy sequences, and also the aftermath scenes where she meets Inspector Lau and starts to discover some of his dark secrets.

    In the pre-Infernal Affairs scenes we also get all of the main cast members popping up - Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang as the cop and crimelord, respectively, as well as the ever-great Tony Leung, whose only failure here is his attempt to look younger here than he did several years earlier when he shot the first movie. His character development here is also very interesting, and we get to see much more of his background.

    Newcomers to the series Chen Daoming (who plays the mysterious arms dealer from mainland China) and Leon Lai (who plays the security division Superintendent who Inspector Lau does not trust) are again actors who grow on you after a second viewing. Leon Lai, in particular, excels, and you are left wondering - just like Lau is wondering - whether this stranger is actually a top cop, who has uncovered the truth about Lau's duplicity; or whether he is actually one of Sam's moles, intending on cleaning house by erasing Lau and thus erasing all knowledge of his own existence as a mole. Again, it's a great cast.

    This final entry sees allegiances shift, double identities finally revealed (through the very clever flashback sequences) and sees everything wrapped up in a powerful and haunting fashion. Infernal Affairs III will always be my personal least favourite of the Trilogy, but only by a small degree, and purely because the other two are such brilliant crime thrillers, whilst this one is a completely different animal.

    If Infernal Affairs feels like a high concept, top-of-its-game, undercover cop vs. undercover Triad movie; and Infernal Affairs II is more of a gangster-driven Godfatheresque masterpiece; then Infernal Affairs III, whilst constructed with the same dual-timeline format as Godfather Part II, is actually very different in style to either of its predecessors – playing out as something more like a psychological thriller than anything else. It works extremely well as a great expanded universe accompaniment to the first movie, but it also somehow doesn’t feel like it belongs in exactly the same genre. At the end of the day, all three movies are pretty dark, but whilst the third film does offer up some kind of full-circle closure, it comes at a high price. In my opinion, it’s the darkest of the trilogy.