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Review © Alex Apple, 2006.

Directed by 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.

Synopsis

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 the protagonists.

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 matter.

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
Chills: 0/10
Sex: 0/10
Violence: 3/10
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 be honest.

*** 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

Links

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


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