I have no doubt that the majority of readers have watched Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-winning film The Departed (2006), and although I love Scorsese’s remake, I remain faithful to the original film from Hong Kong, Infernal Affairs (2002). Under the control of frequent collaborators Andrews Lau and Alan Mak, Infernal Affairs was released in the poor post-SARS film climate to overwhelmingly positive critical response. The ever-popular subjects of police and triad gangs are present in the film; however, Lau’s script, which was co-written with Felix Chong, blends psychological duplicity, action and suspense to amazing effect.
Around 1998, I saw FACE/OFF, and I really liked that movie….The surgery about changing the face and body, however, was really not believable. So, with that movie as inspiration, I began to start to think about a story in which two people swap identities. Infernal Affairs really started from there. In Hong Kong, there are so many movies about undercover cops, but we didn’t have any about a triad member infiltrating the police. Actually, I think it must happen, so Infernal Affairs came out of that idea. Actually, I think all the filmmakers in Hong Kong are influenced by John Woo.
– Alan Mak
The plot of Infernal Affairs centrally concerns two men (Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu-wai) – one is a triad member who joins the police force to gather inside information, the other is a police officer who is assigned to infiltrate a triad gang. The problems that arise from their new roles are at the heart of the film. The action scenes are electrifying and the suspense that is built up during the course of the film keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat. The camerawork is extremely streamlined, but composed of quick and erratic cuts that lend to the tension that is not only physical, but also deeply emotional. Unlike many action films, the viewer actually cares when something bad happens to one of the characters.
Indeed, Hong Kong cinema is renowned for its skill and grace in representing action sequences, but not particularly revered for complex or involved plots (New Wave and Second Wave directors aside). Infernal Affairs effectively takes the action genre and sets up intricate plot twists and emotional anxieties. Triad films often deal with issues of loyalty, trust, kinship and betrayal within the framework of triad family systems; however, the crossovers between the police force and the various triad families in Infernal Affairs draw attention to the similarities between the supposedly disparate groups.
In true Hong Kong film industry fashion, Infernal Affairs spawned both a prequel and a sequel a short time after the release of the first film. Although the prequel is far better viewing than the sequel, both are worth seeking out.