Almost everyone familiar with Hong Kong films knows the names Andrew Lau, Andy Lau, and Tony Leung. (Andrew and Andy are not the same person, if you were wondering.) Andrew Lau (“Sausalito”) is a prolific director known for quantity over quality; the same is true for actor Andy Lau (“Full Time Killer”), who has been in 9 out of 10 Hong Kong movies I’ve seen in 2002 (or at least it seems that way). Co-star Tony Leung (“In the Mood for Love”) became a favorite of mine after his turn as a tortured undercover cop in John Woo’s “Hardboiled”, and he’s proven since then that he’s a fine actor in any movie.
Which leads me to “Infernal Affairs”, a collaboration by all 3 men mentioned above. I’m not at all surprised that Leung’s name is attached to this tense and taut crime drama, but I am shocked that the two Laus are involved. Color me surprised that I enjoyed “Infernal Affairs” tremendously and was on the edge of my seat throughout most of it. The film is about a cat and mouse game between a cop working as a mole in a criminal organization and a criminal working as a mole in the police department, and both men’s attempts to uncover the identity of the other.
The film opens with a novel premise. Sam (Eric Tsang), a rising criminal kingpin, assembles together a group of young men from his gang; the men have no criminal records, and thus are still untainted by their gang affiliation. Sam has come to the realization that trying to beat the system is a losing battle, and hatches a plan to send his clean cut young men to the police academy, where they will infiltrate it, rise up the ranks, and become his informants. Things don’t quite work out as Sam expected, and only Ming (Andy Lau) makes it into the police academy. We also meet Yan (Tony Leung), another young academy recruit. Ming becomes a street cop while Yan is taken under the wing of Wong (Anthony Wong), who sends Yan undercover to infiltrate the triads.
“Infernal Affairs” is a slick, terrifically paced thriller. It works from beginning to end and never fails to keep you in suspense. Readers shouldn’t be concern that revealing the identity of the two respective moles — Yan and Ming — in this review will ruin anything, because the two men’s identities, as well as their loyalties, are revealed in the film’s first 5 minutes. The movie kicks into gear with a 30-minute sequence where Yan and Ming, on opposite sides of a police ambush, attempt to get signals to their respective bosses, all the while trying to maintain their cover. The mood is electric and the atmosphere is thick with tension even though nothing really happens in those 30 minutes. The film is that well constructed.
The direction credit goes to Andrew Lau and co-writer Alan Mak, leaving me to wonder who was the real visionary behind the film. I find it hard to believe that Lau could have handled such a mature and brooding film by himself, given his propensity for foolish comedies and stale romances. The film is shot with a slightly dark tint that gives the movie a somber and doomed look and feel. This aesthetic choice is most obvious when Yan is onscreen. Because his identity has been erased to help his status on the street as a rising gangster, the only person who knows Yan’s true identity is Wong. In an homage (or is that theft?) to John Woo’s “Hardboiled”, Wong reminds Yan of his (Yan’s) birthday and gives him a gift during one of their secret meetings.
As Ming, Andy Lau is appropriately smug and arrogant and suave, 3 personality traits the actor seems to have in bulk. Ming’s bright and happy life provides a well-defined dichotomy to Yan’s frail existence. Lau is clearly the villain here, as he betrays everyone in an attempt to further his personal ambitions. But this is also where the film falters a bit because it fails to provide Ming with complexity. Compared to Yan, Ming is an open book. While there might be a sense that Ming wishes to go straight, to become the good cop he knows he can be if given the chance, there’s just not enough there.
Actually, “Infernal Affairs” can be called Yan’s movie. It’s Yan’s brief scenes with Kelly Chen, as a psychiatrist who allows Yan to sleep in her office chair, that gives the film much of its heart and soul. Chen gives an understated, but correct, performance, and it’s too bad the film doesn’t focus more on their awkward relationship. I would have liked to know more about Yan and less about Ming. Actually, I would have liked to know more about Yan and Chen, but perhaps that could be another movie.
Andrew Lau, Alan Mak (director) / Alan Mak, Felix Chong (screenplay)
CAST: Andy Lau …. Liu
Tony Leung …. Yan
Eric Tsang …. Sam
Anthony Wong …. SP Wong