In the 1980s and early 1990s, Hong Kong cinema was home to the most exciting, wildly creative, and viscerally impressive action cinema in the world, losing the title only as Hollywood drafted its biggest stars and filmmakers and reunification sent the city-state back to Chinese control in 1997.
Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong, 2002), from filmmaking team Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, was less a return to form than a new direction. The ingeniously scripted tale of cops and gangsters features the top talent of the Hong Kong film industry and is directed with a dramatic intensity and a gritty realism that had been absent from Hong Kong crime films since the mid-1990s.
The plot recalls John Woo’s Hard Boiled (Hong Kong, 1992), with its deep-cover officer so far into the mob that he’s drowning under the pressure, but it adds a brilliant twist: the crooks have their own deep-cover mole in the ranks of the police. Andy Lau (no relation to the director) is Lau, the fast rising super-cop who is actually a criminal mole planted in the police department to give mob boss Sam (Eric Tsang) a heads up on the surveillance. Tony Leung Chiu Wai is Chan, the undercover cop who has infiltrated Sam’s organization. His three-year assignment has been extended time and again by the obsessive Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong) and he’s become worn down and weary from years of watching his back.
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, coldly calculating under his smooth surface of charm, 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. It turns into a high concept cat-and-mouse thriller with Chan, by now a burned-out street survivor, scrambling to stay alive.
Directors Lau and Mak focus on character over action. 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.
It plays like a South Korean crime drama married to the outsized Hong Kong melodrama of loyalty and sacrifice: slick and handsome (it credits acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle as “visual consultant”), solidly plotted, and satisfyingly cynical. The filmmakers keep the complicated narrative strands clear and easy to follow while weaving the stories together tighter and tighter. The momentum hits overdrive as the investigations race one another to the finish, supercharging the character drama and the emotional pitch—the sheer panic of undercover operatives as their identities unravel—as much as it does the action.
If it seems familiar to you, that’s no surprise. It was remade in the U.S. as The Departed (2006), relocated from the Hong Kong Triads to the mean streets and Irish mobs of Boston, and directed with style and intensity by Martin Scorsese, who finally nabbed his first Academy Award for directing.
Infernal Affairs became a smash in Hong Kong and won seven awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards, including best picture, director, actor (Tony Leung), supporting actor (Anthony Wong), and screenplay. It spawned two sequels and made Andrew Lau and Alan Mak a powerhouse filmmaking team, but nothing they made before or since is as successful or as interesting as this ingenious blast of Hong Kong crime cinema.
Rated R, in Chinese with English subtitles
Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Infernal Affairs Trilogy (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Infernal Affairs [Blu-ray]
Infernal Affairs [DVD]
The Criterion Collection presents all three films in a box set trilogy, presented in 4K digital masters, with filmmaker commentary on the first two films, an alternate ending, featurettes, interviews with the directors and actors, behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes, outtakes, and a booklet with an essay by film critic Justin Chang.
It was previously released individually from Miramax with an alternate ending and three featurettes, presented from a lesser digital master.