Infernal Affairs (2002)

Review #1,375

Director:  Andrew Lau & Alan Mak
Cast:  Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang
Plot:  A story between a mole in the police department and an undercover cop.  Their objectives are the same: to find out who is the mole, and who is the cop.

Genre:  Crime / Drama 
Awards:  Won 5 Golden Horses - Best Film, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound Effects.  Nom. for 7 Golden Horses - Best Leading Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects, Best Action Choreography
Runtime:  101min
Rating:  PG for violence
International Sales:  Media Asia

“Do all undercover cops like rooftops?”

Back in the early 2000s when Hong Kong cinema was having some kind of stagnating crisis, one inspired film woke a fair deal of people—audiences and filmmakers alike—up.  Infernal Affairs, penned by Felix Chong and Alan Mak, and directed by the latter together with Andrew Lau, swept major awards at the Taipei Golden Horse Awards and Hong Kong Film Awards, revitalising the police-and-triad crime-thriller for a post-millennial viewership, and essentially reminded the world that HK cinema has what it takes to succeed both economically and critically. 

Starring Tony Leung as Yan, a cop undercover as a mole in an organised crime syndicate, and Andy Lau as Inspector Lau, a cultivated gangster working undercover in the police, Infernal Affairs is a fascinating story of two faux identities at odds with each other (and themselves), and I’m sure many have read it as symbolic of the faux symbiosis that is the HK-China relationship post-1997 takeover.  There are certainly political overtones, explicitly or otherwise, and in fact, there has been an alternate ending created for China viewers, which I find irksome.   

It is natural for anyone to compare Infernal Affairs to The Departed (2006), the American remake by Scorsese, which is a superlative film in its own right.  Having first seen the latter ten years earlier, the plotting in Infernal Affairs is certainly familiar but still ingenious.  Perhaps the most direct advantage of the original film over its remake is its sheer economy.  Clocking almost an hour less, Infernal Affairs runs like a tight ship, but never at the expense of character development, or the intricacies of plotting. 

Despite the tendency for HK thrillers to impress through its gritty if occasionally overdramatic action set-pieces, be it violent gunfights, car chases or fisticuffs, Infernal Affairs seems to deliberately eschew such obvious performative action hooks, but instead leaves much of how things will play out psychologically—with unnerving uncertainty.  It doesn’t need pyrotechnics, money shots or excessive style to work; it simply relies on strategy and mystery to hypnotise viewers.  Fourteen years on, it remains refreshing and inspiring.

Verdict:  A tightly-scripted and suspenseful film that inspired the superlative The Departed, which doesn’t quite come close to the satisfying economy of this well-made cat-and-mouse crime-thriller.


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