Infernal Affairs [Wu jian dao]
by Del Harvey
“Longevity is a big hardship in continuous hell.” — Buddha
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This top box-office hit is credited with reviving the weak Hong Kong film market single-handedly. After several years of mediocre films, the star-studded Infernal Affairs broke box-office records and inspired American icons Martin Scorsese and Brad Pitt to pick up the rights for an American remake.
In a nutshell, Infernal Affairs is about two cops who join the Police Academy at the same time. One is cut when he doesn’t make the grade and ends up working for one of the top Triad bosses. The other climbs through the ranks to become a top investigator on the force. But, wait a minute… Is the inspector really a plant sent to the Academy by that very same Triad boss? And is the Academy failure really an undercover cop sent to infiltrate the Triad? No one is really sure. And it’s the not knowing that gets under everyone’s skin.
As Inspector Ming, Andy Lau (Fulltime Killer, Running on Kharma) turns in the performance of a lifetime. His subtle nuances provide for some great tension as he struggles to be either true to the Triad or to live up to his ideas as a cop. Tony Leung’s (Hero, Chunking Express) Yan is a cop frustrated by his never-ending role as a Triad member. His facial expressions give more emotion than many actor’s most heartfelt soliloquies. This swirling Ying/Yang (Ming/Yan?) keeps the viewer guessing, while an ‘A’ list of supporting actors helps to keep the pot well-stirred.
Remarkable is the best way to describe the talents of Eric Tsang and Anthony Wong. Tsang (Men Suddenly in Black, Jiang Hu) provides whimsical menace in a fatherly way as Triad boss Sam. Wong (The Mission, The Untold Story, the Young and Dangerous series) manages to squeeze much from his tough as nails, by the book Organized Crime and Triad Bureau leader, who is a rock-steady counterpoint to Lau’s loose-cannon Ming. Tsang and Wong’s rivalry is older than that of their young moles, and is integral to the plot. The lovely Kelly Chen plays Yan’s psychiatrist and love interest, Dr. Lee. But even she is unaware the depths of deception and subterfuge Yan is capable of. Ming’s love interest is pop singer/actress Sammi Cheng, whose main role seems to be to provide further frustration for the inspector, who wants more than anything to lead a straight, upstanding life.
While there aren’t many shoot-outs or pure action scenes in Infernal Affairs, there is a very strong story and solid characters. It is hard to imagine that uneven director Andrew Lau (no, he’s not the actor) could have put together such a supreme effort. Even the most ardent action fan will be mesmerized by the plot unfolding on the screen. These character inhabit worlds of alternating light and dark, as expressed through the cinematographer’s lens as he captures the night scenes in vibrant, electric hues, and the day in cool, stark ambers and blues.
A genre film with subtle twists in all the right places, Infernal Affairs is one of the best films to come out of Hong Kong in years, and will remain an oft-imitated role model for years to come.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and teaches screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.
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