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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
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   Infernal Affairs  


Infernal Affairs

Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei

Chinese Title: Wu jian dao
Directed by: Lau Wai Keung, Mak Siu Fai
Writing Credits: Felix Chong, Mak Siu Fai
Starring: Andy Lau, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, Sammi Cheng
Genre: Crime Action Thriller
Country: Hong Kong
Language: Cantonese
Year released: 2002
Runtime: 101 min
Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

Infernal Affairs is, without a doubt, one of the best Hong Kong films in recent years. Devoid of any special effects, any camera and editing trickery, this is good cinema at its most basic – a good plot, augmented by excellent performances from the leads in the film. Directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, with cinematography by Christopher Doyle, Infernal Affairs also consistently looks good, despite there not being much of an artistic flourish in the film. Although the denouement is rather pedestrian, and several plot holes are present, this is still the most rewarding 100 minutes of Hong Kong cinema for a very long time.

Ming (Andy Lau) and Yan (Tony Leung) seemingly lead lives on opposite sides of the law - Ming is an up and coming police officer, favored by his superiors and certainly more than adept at his job. Yan, on the other hand, has been a triad member for almost a decade, and for the past three years has been in the triad controlled by Sam (Eric Tsang). However, it’s really not as simple as it seems, as both Ming and Yan are moles - Yan is in fact an undercover policeman, recruited by Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong), and Ming was planted in the police force as a source of insider information by Sam.

In an ironic twist, Ming and Yan are working for each others’ mentors, and when a drug raid goes wrong, both sides realize that there’s a mole in their midst, and attempts to sniff out the identities of both covert operatives begin. Ming and Yan are both tired of their undercover lives, however, and wish to end their double lives, and once again be on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, as matters increasingly take turns for the worse, the duo realise that their desires to leave their past behind may be harder to attain than it seems.

At first glance, Infernal Affairs may seem to be a bog-standard cop action thriller, but to pigeonhole the film into this category would be unfair. Infernal Affairs is almost devoid of any traditional action sequences - there are virtually no gunfights, and car chases are not the high-octane ones that audiences would expect. Much of the film is deliberately paced, and yet maintains a sense of tension and suspense throughout. There has not been a film where I have SMS being used to such a nail-bitingly tense degree, and watching Superintendent Wong and Sam battling wits during a police stakeout alone is worth the price of admission. Several scenes in the film do not bear well under post-movie scrutiny, but these loopholes are not glaring enough to detract from the movie.

Then there’s the acting, of which the four leading men put in fantastic performances. Tony Leung and Andy Lau once again prove their acting chops, and manage to portray the inner turmoil in their characters without much histrionics. Tony Leung is the more adept actor, however, letting Yan’s world-weariness show through not just in his dressing and facial expressions, but in his every mannerism as well. Although Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang are both supporting characters, their powerful performances ensure that every moment of their onscreen time is captivating. Once again, the bad guy is the better of the two, and Eric Tsang’s Sam is suitably menacing despite his sunny demeanor. The women in the film, namely Elva Hsiao, Sammi Cheng and Kelly Chen, do not fare as well, as all three are relegated to being nothing more than ornamental, inconsequential female characters.

Infernal Affairs is a movie with a complex plot and multiple-layered characters. Unlike most cop movies, there is no clear line separating the good guys from the bad guys, and many a time the characters are in the grey area - a thinking man’s cop movie, if you will. After all the complex plotting, however, the denouement may come as a little unsatisfying, especially as it leaves a few issues hanging unresolved. But by then, Infernal Affairs has been a good enough cinematic experience that even this oversight is forgiven. For all those who feel that the Hong Kong film industry is beyond redemption, this is the film to prove you wrong. One can only hope that future HK films will also strive to be of such caliber.

Final Word: Exceptionally well plotted and acted, and deserving of all the accolades it is bound to receive in awards ceremonies next year. There is hope for HK cinema after all.