1 Hr., 41 Mins.
Infernal Affairs January 3, 2020
mbition is like a poison in the ingeniously premised cop thriller Infernal Affairs (2002). Its lead characters know this well. One of them is Chan Wing-yan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), an undercover officer who has successfully implanted himself into a triad gang. The other is Lau Kin-ming (Andy Lau), a triad member who has successfully implanted
himself into the Hong Kong police force. Both have put themselves into
such hyper-stressful situations in the name of career-building. During police training, Chan is convinced by Superintendent Wong Chi-sing (Anthony Wong) that if he spends his early years deep undercover, he'll get to the top faster. (Chan is of the aspirational kind who yearns for a role like Wong’s but wants to expedite the process.) Lau starts with the triad as a youngster, and, on the command of his boss, Hon Sam (Eric Tsang), has joined and then risen in the ranks of law enforcement. (As the film opens, Lau is a senior inspector.)
The inventive, infectiously agitated conceit of Infernal Affairs is that people on both sides (the triad and the force) come to realize that there’s a mole in their midst. Hon orders Chan to figure out who belongs to the triad; same goes for Lau on the part of law enforcement. Chan and Lau individually know, of course, that they’re the ones their peers are looking for. Neither, though, knows about the other. The film ratchets up the suspense as their paths move toward convergence. Unexpected, however, is that for the entirety of the movie, its writers, Alan Mak (who co-directed the feature with Andrew Lau) and Felix Chong, are somewhat ambivalent about determining whether one man is better — that is to say morally better — than the other.
Infernal Affairs is more than anything about how terrible Chan's and Lau's psychic tug of wars are, and how the hells in which they’re living are getting closer to fading to black. I liked the preferencing of turmoil over orthodox suspense and hero-worshipping. This is a feature that has a high potential to attempt to do a good cop versus bad cop sort of thing with mainstream-friendly thrills. Its makers know that this shouldn’t be the case because it couldn’t be. The performances from Leung and Lau — which are to my eye open wounds of portrayals, with injuries exposed in private and in public covered in Band-Aids and clothing — make real the torment of their characters. Leung is especially riveting. His weariness is so palpable that you think you know what it must feel like to be an undercover cop longing even for office monotony but more and more feeling that your end goal is just a Sisyphean task. The ending of Infernal Affairs is a bummer, but it’s suitably cynical.
Martin Scorsese remade Infernal Affairs a few years later as The Departed (2006), which elongated the original’s narrative and more dedicatedly dug into its themes and the neuroses of the characters. It’s difficult to distinguish one as being better than the other because they operate so distinctly. (I’m glad, however, that Scorsese didn’t maintain the source material’s propensity for PowerPoint-style transitions.) Though the ability of Infernal Affairs to dredge up as much thematic and psychological heaviness as it does in a little over an hour and a half is impressive in contrast to its more temporally generous counterpart. Two sequels to the film were put out in 2003. I haven’t seen them, but I can’t imagine that they enhance the reasons the progenitor is a standout — particularly with one of them being incisiveness. B+