2002’s “Infernal Affairs” was, in many ways, a seminal work in Hong Kong cinema. Not only did the film come out during a period when the industry was mired in bubbly nonsensical comedies starring an army of interchangeable pop “musicians”, but also it continued a growing trend in Hong Kong cinema of smartly written noir. Following in the footsteps of films like “Running Out of Time”, “Affairs” was a breath of fresh air despite its gritty, grungy, and doomed atmosphere. In many ways, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s continuation of the series, 2003’s “Infernal Affairs 3” (which comes to us a scant few months after the release of the first sequel, “Infernal Affairs 2”), is better than it has any right to be.
Returning for the final go-around are most of the original’s cast, including Tony Leung (“Hard-Boiled”) as doomed undercover cop Yan and Andy Lau (“Full-Time Killer”) as crooked Triad mole turned good cop wannabe Ming. Eric Tsang also returns as Sam, the untrustworthy Triad boss, who has become the biggest prick in the entire series with this third outing. Kelly Chen (“And I Hate You So”) also returns as Dr. Lee, the psychiatrist who Yan, after an incident involving an ashtray and someone’s head, is court-ordered to see. Lee and Yan develop romantic entanglements, even as Yan struggles to keep his identity as an undercover cop from her. Meanwhile, Leon Lai (“Heroic Duo”) joins the cast as Leung, the boss of an elite squad, who has his own hidden agenda.
Returning in what amounts to an insignificant cameo this time around is Anthony Wong as Yan’s only police contact. And in a blink and you’ll miss scene at the end of the film, Carina Lau also returns as Mary, the center of a young Ming’s hormonal infatuations in “Infernal Affairs 2”. Chapman To also returns as Keung, the Triad who vouches for Yan to get him into Sam’s gang, but like Wong, To’s appearance seems perfunctory. Aside from Lai, the other new face is Daoming Chen, who plays a Mainland gangster trying to make a deal with Sam for a boatload of guns, and whose character returns to haunt Ming after the death of Yan.
As mentioned, “Infernal Affairs 3” really is better than it has any right to be. Consider the short production time, the fact that it appears in the same year as the first sequel, and it’s really amazing this installment is anything other than a cheap cash-making gimmick. But it’s not. Part three is better than part two, which I still contend doesn’t really belong in the “Affairs” franchise. Except for about 15 total minutes where part 2 does seem to fit in with the “Affairs” universe, that other film should have been another movie altogether. “Infernal Affairs 3” should really have been the only sequel to the 2002 original in my opinion.
Part 3’s narrative structure is separated into two sections, one taking place 6 months before Yan’s murder, and the other taking place 10 months after. The two sections intercut flawlessly, with much of section one spending its time on the developing friendship and then romance between Yan and Kelly Chen’s doctor. In my review of “Infernal Affairs”, I had mentioned that I would have liked to know more about Chen’s relationship with Yan. Apparently I wasn’t the only one, because part 3 is the answer to our prayers.
In the second section, we follow Ming as his personal and professional life disintegrates in the aftermath of Yan’s death. His wife has since divorced him, he’s been relegated to desk duty, and the unflappable Leung seems to have zeroed in on him. Ming comes to believe that he can redeem himself by exposing a killer in the police department that is going around offing the rest of Sam’s undercover moles. Is Leung the killer? Ming thinks so, and sets to prove it. Meanwhile, we begin to notice that the increasingly erratic Ming seems to be losing his mind, and slowly but surely he’s starting to fantasize himself as Yan, even going so far as to worm his way into the life of Dr. Lee.
The movie’s narrative structure is an outstanding idea. This way, writers Felix Chong and co-director Alan Mak are able to give fans of the series a resolution as well as filling in missing time. Easily welcomed is the expanded upon relationship between Yan and Dr. Lee, which also brings some surprisingly light-hearted comedy and romance to a nihilistic series so infused with darkness. Maybe it seems out of place, but I can’t help but feel a little better about Yan’s fate knowing that he had these few happy months with Lee before his untimely death. It’s a small thing, but it somehow makes it all a little better.
Although it lacks the doom and gloom that permeated every celluloid pore of the original, part 3 is still a better product than the sludge of teen nonsense that is drowning the Hong Kong cinema at the moment. There’s no innovation here, but that’s no surprise. It is a sequel, after all, and all we can really hope for is a film that doesn’t embarrass the original too much. I don’t think part 3 embarrasses the original at all. If anything, it’s the perfect companion piece — part 2 notwithstanding.
Andrew Lau, Alan Mak (director) / Felix Chong, Alan Mak (screenplay)
CAST: Andy Lau …. Ming/Liu
Tony Leung …. Yan/Ren
Kelly Chen …. Dr. Lee
Daoming Chen …. Shen
Eric Tsang …. Sam
Chapman To …. Keung
Leon Lai …. Leung