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September 24, 2005

Infernal Affairs Trilogy

Infernal Affairs
Andrew Lau & Alan Mak - 2002
Tartan PAL Region 0 DVD

Infernal Affairs II, Infernal Affairs III
Andrew Lau & Alan Mak - 2003
Mega Star Region 0 DVD

As some people know by now, Martin Scorsese's newest collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio is a film titled The Departed. While there are also those who know that this is yet another Hollywood remake of a Hong Kong film, fewer have seen the first film in the series, which was given a perfunctory release in the U.S. by Miramax. As the information regarding Scorcese's version is sketchy, and could possible incorporate elements from all three films from the original series, I took the time to re-see the first film, plus the second and third film.

For those not familiar with the Hong Kong movie scene, it is common to have multiple sequels for popular films. The first Infernal Affairs was so successful that some feel the film "saved" the Hong Kong film industry which has been on the verge of collapse, with much of the talent and money going either to the mainland or the West. The first film is about two "moles", an undercover policeman, Chan, who has infiltrated organized crime, and a police detective, Lau, who is actually a gangster. If the premise sounds a bit like Face/Off, co-writer and co-director Alan Mak has stated in an interview that John Woo was an inspiration. The Chinese title, Wu Jian Dao, translates as I want to be You, which makes more sense in the third film.

The English language title is both an obvious pun, but also a reference to the Buddhist concept of a hell of continuous suffering. Both Chan and Lau have to suffer because of the strain of maintaining dual roles as cops and criminals. Even the people they have to report to, the gang leader, Sam, and the police inspector, Wong, are secondary mirror images. While Sam is shown to be not entirely bad, Wong is shown to be subject to corruption. Chan's struggle is to reclaim his true identity as a policeman. Lau eventually fully embraces his false identity, at a cost to himself and others. The four main roles are played by Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Anthony Wong, and Eric Tsang, probably the hardest working man in the Hong Kong film industry. Those who follow Hong Kong filmmaking know that Andy Lau and Andrew Lau are two different people. In addition to the occassional verbal and written references to Buddhism, the film makers have visual references, such as the opening scene showing the giant golden statues at a monastary. Another visual motif is with shots of an elevator shaft, with the elevator in descent. Much of the look of the first Infernal Affairs is due to the work of Christopher Doyle, most famous for his work with Wong Kar-Wai.

The second film is in part about Chan and Lau as young men, with greater focus on the relationship between Wong and Sam. While the second part shows more of the history of Chan and Lau, it doesn't quite fit with the information established in the first film. The strength of the second film is in the narrative showing how Sam became the gang leader. A frequent refrain in the film is the saying that what goes around, comes around. The film's best set piece is a scene where the previous boss has arranged to have his rivals killed at the same time. The film alternates between characters, maintaining suspense while not losing the narrative thread. One of the two editors on the Infernal Affairs series was Danny Pang, a terrific filmmaker in his own right.

The third film is primarily about Lau eventually identifying with Chan while trying to identify a new "mole" in the police department. The film is more character driven than the first two films. I'm not sure if Hitchcockian would be accurate a description. The film is actually closer to Brian De Palma's films and I mean this in a good way. The film plays with the characters sense of reality and identity. While there are some perfect moments in this film, Infernal Affairs suffers from two major weaknesses. The narrative is suppose to overlap part of the narrative of the first Infernal Affairs. Not only is this confusing, but it doesn't always fit in a logical chronology. While Tony Leung is scruffy throughout the first film, he is clean shaven throughout the third film, further undermining this film as a compliment to the original film.

While the two latter Infernal Affairs films lack the quality and consistency of the first film, all three were commercial and critical successes, as well as award winners. Martin Scorsese and company are likely dreaming that the The Departed would do as well as the first Infernal Affairs did with the Hong Kong Film Awards.

I bought the British DVD several months before I was aware that there would be a U.S. release of Infernal Affairs. The U.S. DVD is essentially the same, except for a "director's commentary" on the Tartan version. The commentary is actually from both directors as well as the stars. Since no one introduces themselves, it is often unclear who is actually speaking. What is also frustrating is that the commentary and the featurettes do not clarify how Andrew Lau and Alan Mak work together. Previous to Infernal Affairs, Alan Mak had directed several films alone. Andrew Lau has made films both alone and in collaboration, in itself not unusual with Hong Kong films. Lau and Mak's latest film, Initial D, was a major hit in Asia, outdoing the Hollywood entries of this past summer. Lau is now set to make his Hollywood debut with Richard Gere and Hillary Swank.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 24, 2005 09:59 PM