The Hong Kong film industry no longer produces the endless stream of inventive, Hollywood-shaming action movies it once did. The best directors (John Woo, Ringo Lam, Ronny Yu) have high-tailed it to America, the number of films produced each year has dropped dramatically, and a flashier, more Western style of film-making has replaced the intense blood-ballets of the late 80s/early 90s. Good genre films are still being made though, and Infernal Affairs, one of last year's big domestic hits, is a far-fetched but undeniably gripping thriller.
Chan Wing Yan (the ever-brilliant Tony Leung) is an undercover cop in deep with a Triad gang run by the charismatic Sam (Eric Tsang). It's been nine years since Yan adopted a gangster persona and is desperate to re-join the force as a normal policeman. Only his boss Wong (Anthony Wong) knows his true identity, and has promised him that once Sam's gang is busted open, Yan's undercover work is done. The complication here is that Sam has also planted a mole in the Hong Kong police, a gangster named Ming (Andy Lau) who is working right under Wong's nose. Both Wong and Sam know the other is spying on them from within, and are determined to be the first to flush out the respective insider.
Infernal Affairs has the highest profile Hong Kong cast for a long time. Tony Leung and Andy Lau are old hands at this sort of thing, and get to indulge in some Face/Off style ambiguity as to their true nature as heroes or villains; the film ends bravely by not fully resolving this. Up-and-coming stars Shawn Yue and Edison Chen play Yan and Ming in flashback, while the casting of Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang puts interesting spins on the characters the pair usually tackle. Wong has long been one of HK's finest actors and although his range is wide, he's best known for crazed bad guy roles in the likes of The Untold Story and Hard-Boiled. Here however he's the sympathetic police captain, while Eric Tsang, usually the comic stooge in films such as Once Upon a Time in China 1 & 2, is impressively menacing as mob boss Sam.
There's a surfit of contrivances and coincidences, plus a trio of redundant female roles that add nothing to the characters or the storyline. But directors Andrew Lau (no relation to the star) and Alan Mak play the film dead-straight and emphasise tension over action, helped by a pounding orchestral score from Kwong Wing Chan. It's a seriously high-tech film – there are countless of shots of computers and cops utilising complex tracking software, while numerous scenes revolve around characters using cellphones, being traced or having their cover blown by them. By comparison, Yan's method of communicating with Wong – morse code - seems amusingly quaint.
There's no great depth here, even if the film is bookended by Buddhist quotes, but it sure is entertaining, and reassuring proof that there are still some quality films coming out of Hong Kong. Two prequels have followed, directed once more by Lau and Mak.
[Tartan’s new Region 2 DVD – released under their Asia Extreme imprint – gives the film a suitably extra-packed treatment, improving on the supplement-free Hong Kong disc. There’s a 16-minute making of featurette, which is a little generic but includes plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, as does the collection of B-roll footage called Confidential Files. A blooper reel shows a variety of pratfalls and fluffed lines, while the alternate ending was shot for the Chinese mainland and wraps the film up in a far less ambiguous manner than the original ending. There’s also a commentary from director Lau.]
Hong Kong director and cinematographer responsible for some of the biggest hits in recent HK cinema. Born Wai Keung Lau, he photographed classics such as City on Fire, Curry and Pepper and Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express. As a director, Lau brought a flashy, commercial style to films like Naked Killer 2, Modern Romance and To Live and Die in Tsimshatsui, all produced by the prolific Wong Jing.
Hong Kong director born Siu Fai Mak, who began directing in the late 90s with crime thrillers like Rave Fever and the intense drama Final Romance. Infernal Affairs, his film with the popular director Andrew Lau, was the biggest domestic hit of 2002.