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'Infernal Affairs' (2002) Movie Review

Updated on October 5, 2017
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Winnie Khaw graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with an English M.A. (concentration in creative writing).

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Though the negative mirror-image of the criminal/cop has been done in the past, this character-focused film on the psychology and morality of a double life manages to execute such a scenario in a gripping and entertaining fashion.

Infernal Affairs (2002), directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, is a gritty Hong Kong crime thriller starring Tony Leung as undercover agent Chan Wing-Yan, who infiltrates the Triads and remains in that shadowy status for ten years, and Andy Lau as police officer and secret Triad member Lau Kin-Ming. Heralded as a revival of Hong Kong cinema and “a box office miracle,” the film boasts a star-studded cast and received critical acclaim for its cinematic merit. Infernal Affairs was followed by a prequel and a sequel due to commercial success, and inspired a Hollywood remake, The Departed (2006) directed by Martin Scorsese, which won four Oscars. Though the negative mirror-image of the criminal/cop has been done in the past, this character-focused film on the psychology and morality of a double life manages to execute such a scenario in a gripping and entertaining fashion.

The American DVD cover, courtesy of Buena Vista, is a travesty of artistic justice: an admittedly beautiful young woman (who does not appear in the movie) in a tight jumpsuit poses with a gun between the profiles of Leung and Lau. The implications confused me into thinking that Infernal Affairs would be about a romantic love triangle, complete with mafia action and blazing guns. As well, the Chinese title Mou Gaan Dou, meaning “the non-stop path” in reference to Avici, the lowest level of hell in Buddhism, has much more interesting connotations than the English wordplay on “Internal Affairs.”

Infernal Affairs begins by paralleling the introductions of two young men, Yan (Shawn Yue) who enters the police academy only to apparently be expelled, and Ming (Edison Chen) who starts as a gang member and acts as a mole in the police force for drug lord Hon Sam (Eric Tsang). The stern Superintendent Wong Chi-Shing (Anthony Wong) becomes a mentor to a young Yan. Ten years pass, and as the enmity between and Wong and Sam deepens, a cat and mouse game to discover the mole within the respective gang and police department begins. Ming wants to leave his role as a mole for the Triads and to truly become a righteous cop, while Yan for years has wanted to recover his identity as a civilian and police officer. Their desires come to irreparable cross-purposes, however, when Wong is killed by Sam’s men.

Quick, abrupt shots emphasize the passing of time and the differences between the two men. Tilted camera angles convey a sense of unbalance and uncertainty, while a darkly tinted color palette throughout evokes a feeling of hopelessness and doom. Unfortunately, an at times melodramatic score at death scenes/flashbacks/montages somewhat diminishes the very emotion the movie wishes the audience to have. The scenes of Wong’s police department mole Yan against Sam’s Triad gang mole Ming possess an electric, even explosive mood, and the air is almost visibly thick with tension. The fact that the audience knows from the very beginning who the moles are does not detract from Infernal Affairs, as this tense, fast-paced film does not aim to be a mystery; rather, the race to find each other before being found drives most of the story, and the clear victory of the amoral Ming by virtue of his survival concludes it.

One cannot keep an objective distance from the forlorn, desperately unhappy Yan who can find the solace of sleep only in a psychiatrist’s office; a fine actor (recently Chow Mo-Wan in the 2000 film In the Mood for Love directed by Kar-Wai Wong) Leung turns in a particularly layered, sympathetic performance as Yan. Lau gives a well-polished and tuned presentation, but his character lacks the same complexity as that of Yan, though they both live lives in shades of dubious, varying gray. One is ostensibly the “good guy” and the other “the bad guy”; neither likes what he has become. The line of dichotomy between virtue and evil become blurred and unsure. Anthony Wong, with his long and illustrious acting career, creates a magnificently stoic Superintendent persona unwavering in integrity.

Connections between characters, although pared to the minimum, nevertheless manage to express the essential kinship between them, whatever the degree. The mentor-protégé relationship of Superintendent Wong and Yan is a complicated one, mixed with genuine affection and worry even when fraught with accusations and anger. As an intelligent character study and psychological drama infused with elements of action, Infernal Affairs does very well. Nevertheless, the extraneous romantic interest roles of Ming’s girlfriend and perhaps Yan’s psychiatrist seem to occupy unnecessary space in the limited time allotted an otherwise solid and engrossing film. Still, one can argue that the psychiatrist (Kelly Chen) is a refuge for Yan, and that the literary endeavors of Ming’s writer girlfriend (Sammi Cheng) reflect the moral ambiguity of Ming himself.

Moral dilemmas and mixed allegiances make for the contextual excellence of this film, not the common, even somewhat unoriginal plot, which borrows liberally from preceding cinematic productions such as Hong Kong director John Woo’s The Killer (1989) the American movie Heat (1995). High production values, suspenseful direction, adaptive cinematography, and charismatic performances allow for its blockbuster success. Advancing technology plays an integral part: cell phones and a tape recording can be as lethal as guns firing. Thankfully, over-the-top action is eschewed in favor of a more subdued tone rich in drama. The later prequel apparently suffers from a lack of established celebrity power, while the sequel lacks a cohesive storyline—predictably, the first filmed Infernal Affairs, remains the best representation of the trilogy.

Movie Rating

4 stars for Infernal Affairs (2002)

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