One of the most widely acclaimed Hong Kong movies of last decade, Infernal Affairs is a gritty crime thriller that became a “box office miracle” in its native land. It also spawned the Oscar-winning Hollywood remake The Departed, directed by Martin Scorsese. Indeed, the two movies are nearly identical in terms of story and structure but co-directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak set the bar high with a star-studded film that was both original and viscerally satisfying.
Yan (Tony Leung) is an undercover police officer who has spent a decade rising through the ranks of the mob. He has been undercover for so long that he has become the criminal he is supposed to be fighting. Only one person knows of his true identity, Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong) who has developed a fatherly affection for him. On the opposite side is Ming (Andy Lau), a Triad mole who has spent just as many years infiltrating the ranks of the Hong Kong police department for the benefit of Triad crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang). Both Yan and Ming soon become aware of the existence of the other and work to uproot each other before their respective cover is blown.
Devoid of the action set pieces that are traditional of Hong Kong action thrillers, Infernal Affairs is a character-film that focuses on the psychology and moralities of living a double life. Although Yan and Ming are on opposite of the law, they actually have quite a lot in common. Lonely, weary, unhappy and pretending to be people they aren’t, both men are yearning for a dramatic change. Having seen The Departed, it was surprising to see that the original version has this added moral dimension. The two men have been undercover for so long that their sense of allegiance and morals have become muddy. While Scorsese’s remake kept the weariness of the undercover cop, it sadly eliminated the undercover gangster’s yearning to shed his criminal past and become a real cop. Does this tells us something about American audience that our version has to be more black and white while the original version is more subtle in portraying shades of good and evil? More proof is the difference in the ending which may bother some who are overly used to see the “good” people triumph.
This film is at his best when it studies the thin line between cops and criminals, contrasting both characters’ search for their own identity against who they are supposed to be. Andy Lau and Tony Leung are given meaty roles to work with and they deliver terrific performances. Leung in particular is able to convey the weariness and desperation of his character mostly through his demeanor and facial mannerisms. You may recognize him from his highly acclaimed turn in Kar-Wai Wong’s In The Mood For Love and he nails another character here. On a negative note, the female characters in the movie were mostly extraneous with tidbits roles that did not require much from any of them. As expected with most Asian movies, some of the more sentimental moments in the movie are overly melodramatic and corny but this is an issue that pops up only a handful of times throughout the movie.
An original, thrilling and well polished crime thriller that will satisfy any fan of good cinema.
Notes: Rated R for violence, 101 min.