By David Mumpower
April 5, 2004
"Longevity is a big hardship in continuous hell." -- Buddha
"You choose your own future." -- Triad crimelord Sam
And the people caught up in the conflicts of Infernal Affairs fall somewhere in the middle.
The Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs has become one of the most commercial as well as critically successful epics in the history of Chinese cinema. It even managed to up-end Hero for the title of Best Picture in the Hong Kong equivalent of the Academy Awards; moreover, it swept most major categories, had a sequel *and* a prequel greenlighted, and saw Hollywood fall all over itself to make this concept the next The Ring.
It has been a while since I had seen a movie with this sort of pedigree, so my expectations for it are obviously high. I am pleased to report that despite a few disjointed moments, Infernal Affairs proves to be more than worthy of its advance hype.
The movie takes a look at the infamous Triad criminal underground. Rising mastermind Sammy has a vision about how to make his group exist outside the law, and the way to accomplish this dream is through the police academy. He plans to get a group of boys enlisted within the ranks of their hated law enforcement officials. The goal is to always stay one step ahead of the law by having a few moles on the inside who will tip the Triads off whenever their situation is perilous.
Combating this strategy is Hong Kong law enforcement's own snitch strategy. Under the direction of SP Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang in an award-winning performance), a special candidate is chosen to publicly wash out of the Academy in order to set up his undercover job. It is his task to infiltrate the Triad underworld and live as one of them for however long it takes to bring down their reign of terror.
The impeccable young man picked for the task is Chan Wing Yan, much to the chagrin of Lau Kin Ming, one of the Triad kids. Lau has already sussed out the reality of his fate as his turncoat methods will inevitably cause him to lead an existence trapped in a kind of eternal purgatory.
The body of Infernal Affairs is an examination of the parallel lives Lau and Chan lead. Both men grapple with the lack of veracity in their day to day lives which prevents anyone from ever getting to them. It is, after all, an impossibility to ever truly bond with a person who constantly hides who they are from you.
The movie does an exceptional job of driving home this consciously tortured existence through the use of the past and present women in the two men's lives. There is the novelist who can't decide if the literary character she has modeled after her fiancé should be good or bad; there is the ex-girlfriend who hides the existence of a daughter from her father; and there is the police therapist who is conflicted by her fantasies of desire, which are counterbalanced by her knowledge that the man she lusts after may very well be a murderous thug.
Infernal Affairs effectively dares its viewers to act as if they could possibly know either anti-hero since even the women who love these men have no clue what they are really about. The point is driven home further by the fact that none of their co-workers even suspect Chan and Lau of their treachery. The casual acceptance of such enigmatic behavior makes the seedy underworld in which both men reside all the more enticing.
What makes Infernal Affairs a film for the ages is not the story, though. Instead, it is the sublime performances of the two leads that make the movie special. Andy Lau's work as Lau is noteworthy. The way that he confidently carries the film as a tortured man trapped in a hell chosen for him at puberty is the quiet strength of Infernal Affairs with the actor making bold decisions about the ethos of Lau.
The Romulus to Lau's Remus is Tony Leung as Chan. I gushed about the man enough already in my Hero review, but my opinion of his talent has been crystallized here. Tony Leung might very well be THE most talented actor in the world. He can do more with his eyes than countless actors (and good ones at that) are capable of accomplishing with their entirety. He too makes a choice early on about the direction of his character in order to make the mirror reflection between the two moles even more transcendent. The way the two men work together is best described as a progression of Bud White and Lt. Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential. Neither man's make-up may be accurately described using such finite terms as black and white.
Some of the slighter touches in Infernal Affairs are unfortunately lost in translation. There are a couple of scenes as edited by BOP faves, the Pang Brothers, that seem jarring and out of place within the framework of the rest of the movie. All that accomplishes, though, is that it makes me want to learn Cantonese. That's how good the movie is.
On the whole, this movie is about lost souls leading an existence mirroring the mythological tale of Prometheus. Each lead appears to be angling for a fate that will not redeem them but instead might release them from their chains. Infernal Affairs is a bold film that feels epic in scope. I cannot recommend it strongly enough for those of you who aren't naturally disinclined to watch movies with subtitles. The effort you put into the movie will be paid off in dramatic fashion.
As a post-note for movie lovers, pay particular attention to a scene early in the film involving Chan and Lau. It's eerily reminiscent in nature and tone to the Robert DeNiro/Al Pacino diner scene in Heat.