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In the 1980s and early 1990s, the most exciting, inventive and viscerally impressive action cinema came out of Hong Kong. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Sammo Hung were wowing audiences with their action chops and Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung became superstars for their cool charisma and cinematic intensity. At the same time, directors John Woo, Johnnie To, Ringo Lam and Chan himself set the bar for creative spectacle and visual excitement. Then Hollywood started drafting key players, talent and money went stateside in anticipation of the 1997 reunification with China and organized crime stepped in to the motion picture industry during the period of uncertainty. The culture of Hong Kong cinema changed and the quality waned. With few exceptions, the magic was gone, at least for a while.
Infernal Affairs, a 2002 gangster film from the directing team of Andrew Lau (aka Lau Wai-keung) and Alan Mak, was less a return to form than a new direction: an ingeniously scripted tale of cop and gangsters featuring the top talent of the Hong Kong film industry and directed with a dramatic intensity and gritty realism that had been absent from most recent Hong Kong crime films. It became the top box-office hit of the year, swept the Hong Kong Film Awards, spawned sequels and prequels, and was remade in the U.S. -- by no less a director than Martin Scorsese -- as The Departed (2006), relocated from the Hong Kong Triads to the mean streets and Irish mobs of Boston. The change of culture and locale aside, it's a faithful adaptation of the most influential Hong Kong crime drama since John Woo made The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992). In fact, the script by Alan Mak and Felix Chong recalls the premise of Hard Boiled, with its deep-cover officer so far into the mob that he's drowning under the pressure, minus the explosive violence but with one brilliant twist: the crooks have their own deep-cover mole in the ranks of the police.
The opening scenes establish the premise quickly and lay out the major players and complicated relationships. Tony Leung Chiu Wai (a favorite actor of Wong Kar-wai and John Woo) is Chen, the undercover cop whose three-year assignment has been extended time and again by the obsessive Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong). Former pop star Andy Lau (no relation to director Andrew Lau) is Lau, the criminal mole in the police department who has become a rising star on the force while giving mob boss Sam (Eric Tsang) a heads up on the surveillance. The drama heats up when both bosses become aware of the informants in their ranks and each set out to uncover the moles. But one of them has an advantage: Lau not only has access to department records and resources, he's put in charge of investigating the criminal in the police ranks: in other words, he's assigned to root out himself.
Directors Lau and Mak focus on character over action and keep the complicated narrative strands clear and easy to follow while weaving the stories together tighter and tighter. The deliberate pace picks up momentum as the investigations race one another to the finish, driving the character drama and the emotional pitch -- the sheer panic of undercover operatives as their identities unravel -- as much as it does the action; it also eschews flashy shoot-outs and high-energy chases for narrative surprises and brief but shocking bursts of sudden violence. According to Variety critic and Asian film expert Derek Elley, the Chinese title roughly means "No Way Out," which is exactly what Leung's undercover cop must feel as the investigation closes in on him.
The casting is excellent. Leung, scruffy and skittish as he comes close to burnout, recalls his character in Woo's Hard Boiled but with more desperation and nervous intensity. Lau brings his cocksure charm to the ambitious criminal caught up in his success as a rising star of the police department. Anthony Wong, a regular in Johnnie To's gangster films and cop dramas, underplays the intensity of his ferociously dedicated police commander while Eric Tsang, most often cast in comic roles, gives his Triad boss a surface geniality that draws loyalty from his gang while he executes his job with cold-blooded focus. Kelly Chen (Johnnie To's Breaking News, 2004) and romantic leading lady Sammi Cheng co-star and rising stars Edison Chen and Shawn Yue play the young Lau and Chan in the flashbacks.
Credited as "Visual Consultant," Australian-born cinematographer Christopher Doyle (acclaimed for the visionary imagery he created for Wong Kar-wai's films) designed the movie's visual scheme -- a semi-documentary clarity that emphasizes the urban grunge of the streets and the crisp, clean look of the police department settings; he established the style in the initial days of shooting, then handed it over to primary cinematographers Andrew Lau and Lai Yiu Fai (a former Doyle assistant), who worked with Doyle's own camera crew to maintain consistency.
There is really nothing else like this in the previous films of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. A talented cinematographer with a lively but inconsistent career as a director, Lau's most notable credits were the highly successful but formulaic series of Young and Dangerous crime dramas with young matinee idols as triads in love and war, while Mak's even less distinctive career took off once he teamed with Lau on this film. Together they carried this story through a prequel and a sequel and have remained collaborators ever since. But nothing before or since has been as successful, as acclaimed or as interesting as this ingeniously designed and grippingly directed crime thriller, a battle of wits between undercover agents where the stakes are life and death. The themes of loyalty and betrayal and success and survival, and bitter irony of the twists along the way, resonate long after Infernal Affairs is over.
Producer: Andrew Lau
Director: Andrew Lau, Alan Mak
Screenplay: Alan Mak, Felix Chong
Cinematography: Lai Yiu Fai, Andrew Lau
Art Direction: Wong Ching Ching, Choo Sung Pong
Music: Chan Kwong Wing
Film Editing: Pang Ching Hei, Danny Pang
Cast: Andy Lau (Inspector Lau Kin Ming), Tony Leung (Chen Wing Yan), Anthony Wong (SP Wong Chi Shing), Eric Tsang (Hon Sam), Kelly Chen (Dr. Lee Sum Yee), Sammi Cheng (Mary), Edison Chen (Young Lau Kin Ming), Shawn Yue (Young Chan Wing Yan), Elva Hsiao (May), Chapman To (Tsui Wai-keung), Lam Ka Tung (Inspector B), Ng Ting Yip (Inspector Cheung), Dion Lam (Del Piero), Wan Chi Keung (Officer Leung), Hui Kam Fung (Cadet School Principal), Tony Ho (Suspect), Courtney Wu (Stereo Shop Owner), Au Hin Wai (Elephant), Li Tin Cheung (Double 8)
by Sean Axmaker