The Infernal Affairs trilogy offers a stylish glimpse into the Hong Kong underworld.
The trend of adapting Asian movies into American films has not been limited to Japan or to the horror genre. Infernal Affairs is a Hong Kong crime movie currently being remade by Martin Scorsese. Before the American remake comes out, it is a good time to examine the original trilogy in all its plot-twisting, double-crossing glory.
Yan is a good cop, but only he knows it. For the last ten years, he's been undercover in a triad, the Hong Kong equivalent of the yakuza or mafia. He gets beat up by cops and other gangsters, all for the sake of his job. After ten years of living like this, all he wants is to get out and live a normal life.
Opposing Yan is Lau, a rising star in the Hong Kong police force. Lau's life is as blessed as Yan's life is miserable. He has a nice apartment, a cute fiancée, and the respect and admiration of his co-workers. None of them know that he got all of these things through ill means. Like Yan, Lau is a mole, only he's working for the triads.
Adding another layer onto the double dealings are the mole's employers. Yan works for Sam, a colorful but ruthless triad boss whose paranoia is justified in the dangerous Hong Kong underworld. Sam has a personal vendetta against Superintendent Wong, a dedicated police officer and Lau's boss at the police station. Wong is the only other person who knows of Yan's undercover status. Wong doesn't know, however, that Lau is actually working for Sam.
After a drug deal goes bad, both the cops and the triads realize that they have a mole in their midst. Yan and Lau must use every trick that they have to uncover the other's identity before their own cover is blown.
Being an ensemble piece, the many roles are filled by prominent Hong Kong actors. Andy Lau, star of House of Flying Daggers, plays Inspector Lau as an affable guy whose easygoing smile hides many conflicting feelings. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (In the Mood for Love, Hero) has the more traditional role of an undercover cop (some John Woo fans may remember him playing a similar role in Hardboiled), but he still manages to imbued his character with enough pathos as to make him sympathetic to the audience. One of the most important aspects in the actors' casting is their resemblance to each other. Both are around the same height and build. The main difference in their appearances is brought about by their character's circumstances rather than by birth. Yan's hair is messy and his clothes look like they were just picked up at a flea market, while Lau's hair is meticulously styled and his suits quite fashionable. Very little separates the two men, except for fate and surface appearances.
Infernal Affairs, with its great cast, affecting music and slick cinematography, became a huge hit when it premiered in Hong Kong, breaking box office records. After doing so extremely well in theatres, it was only natural that the producers wanted to make a sequel. However, certain events in the first Infernal Affairs didn't make it easy for the next film to pick up and go from there. Co-directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak were forced to figure out how to make a sequel when most of the main characters were killed in the first movie. They came up with two solutions.
One solution was to make a prequel. Infernal Affairs II goes back to the mid-nineties, when Hong Kong still belonged to the British Empire. Wong isn't a superintendent yet, but he's working on it. Sam is an up and coming crime boss whom Wong tolerates, seeing him as the lesser of two evils, compared to the other crime bosses in the city. The two even have a strange sort of friendship, occasionally helping each other out with information and favors.
When a prominent triad leader is shot dead, his son takes his place and starts brutally enforcing his rule in Hong Kong. Seeing that it would be mutually beneficial to remove Hau from play, Wong and Sam start working together to bring him down. Although the main focus of the story is on Sam and Wong's respective rise to power, the first movie's moles, played by younger actors than in the first film, have important roles as well. Yan is just starting his undercover work, using his status as Hau's half-brother to get close to the triad leader. Meanwhile Lau plays with fire as he falls for Sam's woman, the cunning and ever strategic Mary.
If Infernal Affairs was a look at two very similar men in very different situations, Infernal Affairs II is a sprawling epic that concerns pretty much everyone and anyone in the criminal world and police society of Hong Kong. Although it makes the plot of the original Infernal Affairs look simple in comparison with its numerous plot threads and large cast, Infernal Affairs II is a worthy sequel. Despite the sometimes over-reaching storyline, the movie expands the world that the characters live in and the characters themselves.
While a prequel is a pretty straightforward affair, the directors shot another sequel to Infernal Affairs, this one being a little more complex. It occurs after the events of the first movie, and it flashes back to events that happened just before the events of Infernal Affairs. Infernal Affairs III notes the date of each scene, so that it's easier to follow along. In present time, the movie follows Lau as he investigates the enigmatic police officer Leung. Lau suspects Leung, played rather icily by Leon Lai, of being a mole for a crime boss from mainland China. As Lau digs deeper into Leung's past, it becomes apparent that it might not be Lau hunting Leung but the other way around. In flashbacks, we see how Yan knew Officer Leung, and we see Sam’s dealings with the Chinese boss.
The third movie concludes the trilogy, although it may take several viewings to fully comprehend its workings. Aside from figuring out how the flashbacks and present time sequences fit together, not to mention the events of the first two movies and a dream sequence, Lau's sanity slowly comes undone over the course of the final film, making him at times an unreliable witness for the audience. This unpredictability helps to make some of the twists really surprising. Just when you think you have the world of Infernal Affairs figured out, a character's true nature will be revealed to be something totally unexpected.
The twists and turns is what makes the Infernal Affairs trilogy so interesting. Each film contains heavy Buddhist imagery, with the first two movies starting off with quotes from Buddhist canon. Karma is a belief held amongst many of the characters, the idea that if you are a good person, good things will happen to you. But how do you determine if you are a good or bad person? If you have to do bad things like Yan, are you still a good cop? If you work for the bad guys, like Lau, but still try to do good, what does that make you? Unlike the balance that karma is supposed to bring, pretty much everyone in the Infernal Affairs trilogy meets a dismal end, bit player or major boss, crooked cop or honorable thug.
In the world of Infernal Affairs, the good guys don't always win, and even when they do, it’s at a great price. The movies are not especially gritty or violent (the characters use their cell phones more often than their guns), but its story is in a morally gray area. For its release in mainland China, the ending of the first film was changed to a more socially acceptable finale over the morally ambiguous original ending.
Infernal Affairs was brought over to the US by Miramax last year, but in extremely limited theatrical release. In a puzzling marketing move, they released the DVD with a cover featuring a scantily clad, gun-toting woman who does not even appear in the movie. Infernal Affairs II and Infernal Affairs III will probably make it over to North America on DVD eventually, especially if Martin Scorsese's remake, currently titled the The Departure and starring Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, becomes a hit. Until then, you can check out the first installment of this great cops-and-robbers drama on DVD.