“Remember this, if you see someone doing something but at the same time watching you…then he’s a cop.”
Infernal Affairs was always amongst my favourite films ever, and I’ve watched quite a fair bit. As a child in 2002, I didn’t understand it watching it with my Cantonese speaking folks, but in some crevice of my brain where knowledge resided, I knew it was good. Fast forwards to 17 years old studying film, I finally understood that Infernal Affairs stands as a masterpiece emerged from modern Hong Kong cinema.
The film’s title is a wordplay on the English term “internal affairs”, which references the investigations made within the police force, and “inferno”, another name for hell – which was exactly the lives Chan Wing-Yan and Lau Kin Ming led. The film features Hong Kong superstars and heartthrobs Andy Lau, a triad member in the police department, and Tony Leung, an undercover cop working for the triad boss as moles hidden deep in opposing sides of a battle between a ruthless mob boss (Eric Tsang) and a tough police sergeant (Anthony Wong). Both of them are pitted against each other in a ruthless elimination game of cat and mouse.
This film was about choices. Chan and Lau both made a choice many years back, and they stuck to it. But though they were each successful in the paths they were forced in – Chan was the most trusted triad member of the boss and Lau was climbing up the ranks in the police force, both spies struggled with their many years spent living double lives and wondered if they lost their true selves along the way. Chan starts losing faith in himself as a cop; Lau realizes the dignity of the police force and he wants to erase his criminal background. Infernal Affairs wisely rejects the usual genre tropes about the seduction of evil and presents a refreshing and unfashionable idea: that, given the choice, most people would rather be the good guy than the bad guy.
What makes Infernal Affairs a film for the ages is the performances of the two leads. Andy Lau’s work as Lau is remarkable. This was a guy who picked up the call of the most wanted criminal in Hong Kong in front of the Superintendent and said: “Sorry dad, I won’t be home for dinner tonight.” He carried a quiet strength in Lau and played him in such a ruthless, confident way that the audience were conflicted if he really did choose the good side in the end, or if he truly lost himself in the end.
Another fantastic quality of Infernal Affairs is the difference in looks of the two leads. Andy Lau, the face of Hong Kong’s biggest action star is sharp and pointed, almost feral, and when he smiles, he resembles a manga comic book character, all sharp teeth and angles, dripping with contempt and malevolent certainty.
But Tony Leung is different. In contrast, his face is soft, and dreamy, and he possesses a sensitive quality that is palpable through the screen. His smile, instead of sharp, is boyish and sometimes even impish. One of the most sympathetic, attractive presences in Asian cinema (see Hero and In The Mood For Love), he’s famous for his eyes and boy, this man’s eyes never betrays. His character 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.
Although reviews found that the two love stories were out-of-nowhere, I felt like the subtlety was enough. Sometimes in life, love isn’t everything, but it can be enough. Undercover cop or criminal, they both loved purely, with no requests, and no doubts.
I noticed that Chan pointed the gun at Lau’s back as a symbolism of Lau being the backstabber of the police force and the spineless associate of the mob boss.
A THANKLESS HOLLYWOOD REMAKE
As some may know, this riveting thriller was remade into Martin Scorsese’s The Departed with the setting moved from Hong Kong to Boston and with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in the starring roles. Although some have argued that Scorsese’s gritty, raw take was because it depicted the reality of the situation, I felt that given the circumstances, some heroes would choose to be like Chan, quiet and humble instead. As star-studded as the cast may be, and as much as I respect Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon, they had nothing on Lau and Leung.
The Departed also went on to clinch the Academy Award for Best Picture, and in their classy speech, they failed to acknowledge the original scriptwriters, Wai Keung Lai and Siew Fai Mak.
The most gripping scene in the movie. Martin Scorcese couldn’t copy this one.
Infernal Affairs is a riveting experience that requires one to view closely multiple times. The film constantly switches between the good and evil that every character goes through in a vicious duel for survival. The film has no black and white, only grey.
“Do all undercover cops like rooftops?” “Unlike you, I’m not afraid of the light.”
What did you plotters think of this film? Let me know in the comments below!