Ok so let’s get this out of the way. I love Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs way more than Martin Scorsese‘s critically-lauded remake, The Departed. I’m not going into a detailed comparison here, but for me the performances, cinematography and economy of storytelling are much more impressive – plus the fact that, you know, this is the original version of the story. Yes there is a style that needs a bit of adjusting to, especially if you’ve seen the Scorsese film first. There are bits that veer on cheesy, and the filmmaking is resolutely Hong Kong in style, making abundant use of freeze frames and black and white flashbacks whenever a significant character dies. That being said, the emotions are real, and the performances from the leads are infinitely more interesting than the bombastic, shouty turns from the cast of The Departed. (I should say that I do infinitely prefer the actual filmmaking of the remake: the editing, direction, camera movements are a lot more dynamic than the cool but static cinematography of Infernal Affairs).
The first film in the trilogy is a slick crime thriller, following two undercover operatives. Yan (Tony Leung) is an undercover cop within the triads, and Ming (Andy Lau) a mole for the Triads within the police force, it’s a relentless game of cat and mouse as the two come under growing pressure from their superiors to identify their opposite number. Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong) is a laconic, kindly mentor who takes a paternal interest in Yan, while crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang) is a ruthless, increasingly paranoid mobster who is determined to sniff out the cop in his gang.
This was the first Hong Kong film I ever experienced and it drew me in immediately. The two central performances are nuanced and full of pathos, throughout the film. Lau in particular never makes his character an overt villain, playing Ming as someone who got in above his head at a young age, and is actually envious of Yan’s heroism. There’s a reason that Yan’s “I’m a cop” is the line that haunts him in Infernal Affairs III – more than anything else, he wants to be a cop, and wants to extricate himself from this criminal lifestyle. While his counterpart in The Departed is motivated entirely by self preservation, Ming’s double life takes a heavy toll on his conscience. He’s not just looking for a way out, he’s looking for absolution.
Leung plays Yan with a similar mixture of charm and angst, albeit within a more conventional character arc. He’s an incredibly expressive actor, especially in his non-verbal scenes with Wong and Tsang. This is the second Tony Leung film I’ve reviewed this month (see here for the other one) and it’s worlds away from the arthouse films he made with Wong Kar Wai, although it’s similarly striking to look at. The cinematography evokes Michael Mann, with cool blue tinted cinematography and beautiful wide shots of the Hong Kong cityscapes. The crisp shots of the many clandestine rooftop meetings look stunning, especially on this re-release from Criterion.
Of course the trilogy is a case of diminishing returns, but only ever so slightly. One sequel adds depth and nuance to the characters, while the other completely muddies the waters of the original film. Infernal Affairs II often feels more like a Johnnie To Triad epic than the cops and robbers story of the first film, and benefits from this change in style. A prequel to the first film, Lau and Mak shift focus to the early careers of Yan and Ming, (now played by Shawn Yue and Edison Chen) and the evolving friendship / rivalry between Sam and Wong. Both Tsang and Wong get some fantastic dramatic moments, together and apart, and we see their initially amicable relationship turn sour over the course of the film, thanks in part to the actions of Yan’s older, Triad brother (Francis Ng) and Sam’s pragmatic wife (Carina Lau). Ng in particular stands out as a ruthless, cold-blooded villain, potentially the most well developed and threatening baddie in the series. In one scene (an effective homage to The Godfather) he arranges for the systematic elimination of all his rivals in one fell swoop while calmly sitting in a police interrogation room. Infernal Affairs II is the only film in the trilogy to not feature Lau or Leung, a baffling choice that somehow pays off really well. Rather than a star vehicle or a cynical cash-in, it explores the relationships between the various characters, and informs the character dynamics of the original film.
Unfortunately the wheels completely come off in the final film, which tries to do way too much, acting as both a prequel and a sequel, with two new mysterious characters arriving on the scene, (played by Leon Lai and Chen Daoming) as Ming tries to cover up his involvement in the first film, ending up in an existential nightmare. The whole thing smacks of both trying too hard and not caring all that much about consistency – Tony Leung doesn’t have his goatee from the first film any more, there are some very dodgy framing / focusing moments, and the ending is the cheesiest moment of the entire series. The main issue with the third film is that it emerges that there were more characters who knew about Yan’s undercover operation, which dilutes the jeopardy of the first film. If all these people knew about Yan, why was he forced to meet Ming on the roof in the first place? He had options!
Infernal Affairs II is almost on the same level as the first film, and grounds the quite high concept premise, as well as establishing the stakes of the first film. Infernal Affairs III is a hot mess, and only for completists. Neither of these truly compare to the original though, a genre masterpiece that should be much more lauded than it already is. It’s a lean, tightly plotted thriller with thoughtful, characterisation and pitch perfect performances, with subtle but genuinely surprising plot twists. There’s a precision to the storytelling that prevents the momentum from ever flagging, and crucially, it never outstays it’s welcome.
This is a fantastic boxset, packed with special features, including Audio commentaries from directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak and screenwriter Felix Chong, Archival interviews with the cast and crew; a new interview with the directors and a variety of other extras transferred across from the previous Blu-Ray release.
I am not a Cantonese speaker, so I can only guess that the newly translated subtitles are more accurate than those on the previously released Blu-rays, but it seems that this has come at the cost of the personality of the original release. The Tartan Asia Extreme DVD was full of a dry humour that has largely been omitted here in favour (I would hope) of a more accurate translation. It’s not a huge issue, but it does make the films seem quite sombre, and a little less fun.