Infernal Affairs (2002)
by: Andrew Lau & Alan Mak
at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2003:
at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2003:
Infernal Affairs opened in Hong Kong on December 12th 2002 and since then it has earned close to (or even over?) 50 million Hong Kong dollars at the box office. This was something that surprised me and surely others when you looked back at the Hong Kong movie output in 2002. That year, the box office top figures belonged, mostlyto, often average, romantic comedies. That's why it was almost a shock when I heard that Infernal Affairs, a cop/triad movie met with critical acclaim, was such a hit over in Hong Kong. Hong Kong cinema couldn't have asked for a better closure to 2002 and start of 2003.
Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau from Fulltime Killer) is working undercover, for the triads, within the Hong Kong police but the police themselves have also placed the police Yan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai from Hero) in the triads. After a drug bust that goes wrong, both the respective camps suspect that there is a mole amongst them. The job of finding these moles goes to the moles themselves, Lau and Yan. It's a pressure filled search that eventually brings the two opposites together...
Infernal Affairs does belong to the cop/triad-genre that's been seen and done before. However, no one is saying that that fact automatically makes Infernal Affairs a poor film. Even if it's the 1000th entry in a genre, the filmmakers have to remember one word: execution. Before you begin to doubt the movies quality I will say that Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's film is very well executed. In it we find elements that are highly familiar even outside of Hong Kong cinema but the thing that makes Infernal Affairs better than the rest is the mentioned execution and, to a great extent, acting.
The screenwriters Alan Mak and Felix Chong's construction of the story is clever but it's also a story that isn't hard to follow. They don't feel the need to write snappy and so called original dialogue, just as long as the story is well told you don't need that. The script is the blueprint for the film and not even the worlds biggest budget and awesome filmmaking technique can cover up a poorly written script, which again this isn't. The characters of Lau and Yan gets the most attention in the writing but I'm glad Alan and Felix didn't go overboard with their respective character arc. We get enough development when we see them in their undercover- and private life and to be honest no further development is needed. Wouldn't count them as fully fleshed out characters but for this movie and it's story we know as much as we need to know to carry on forward. At one point in the film I was ready to start criticizing Andy Lau's character arc but all great movie characters don't come full circle until the end or their end. Then I realized that no criticism was needed. The supporting characters are not forgotten and even though they're familiar characters of the genre, they play an integral part of the film. Again, it doesn't have to be new to be good. However, you do feel that Kelly Chen's psychiatrist character is a realization of rushed proportions but I'm willing to hold that criticism inside me AFTER sampling the upcoming prequels. We may get a backstory there that will enhance the apparent emotional weight built up between her and Yan in this movie.
One aspect Mak and Chong's script touches upon and what makes Infernal Affairs more intriguing is the theme of what's described as continuous hell. Details would only spoil but it's an interesting theme to develop in regards to the main characters and the question viewers hopefully will ask themselves after the final frame is; what is the greater punishment? I'll leave it at that.
This co-directing aspect of movies is an interesting one to me. Gordon Chan and Dante Lam (Beast Cops) and The Pang Brothers (The Eye) are good examples of very good films with multiple directors. Andrew Lau began his career as a cinematographer and has that credit on movies such as As Tears Go By and Wild Search. During the 90s however he moved more into directing (he still shot the movies though) which resulted in a a few, according to fans and critics, really bad films (The Avenging Fist for example). They're considered good on a visual level but not much else. He did score a huge hit with the Young & Dangerous series that seem to have gone over well with fans at least. I've only seen his triad drama To Live And Die In Tsim Sha Tsui which wasn't too bad if I remember correctly. Co-director Alan Mak have not earned as many credits as Andrew but notable movies of his seem to be Nude Fear and A War Named Desire.
The positive about their directing in Infernal Affairs is that it ultimately isn't style over substance and they make sure the movie comes off as storydriven. I don't know how it worked on set but you would think Andrew took more care of the technical side of things while Alan directed the story bit more. Either way they both do a great job in both aspects although I have to point out a few, to me, negative technical things. The movie just feel way too flashy at times. The opening flashback montage shows quite a bit of quick cutting and camera pans with an sound effect layered over it. That actually works in this sequence but we get to see it a few more times during the movie. I'm sure you all think: just relax and enjoy the movie! I am but I do not like when filmmakers inject this absolutely useless bits of flashiness when it's not needed! I'm totally convinced that it could've been shot in a normal way and turned out even better. Luckily, this camera work doesn't appear very often so it didn't affect my opinion about the film.
Besides that, Andrew and co-cinematographer Lai Yiu Fai shoots this movie in a very pleasing way. They like to keep the camera moving but in a more subtle and calm way which goes hand in hand with the mood of the different scenes. There's a lot of colours on display but rather than fill the entire frame with one colour, the DP's put different colour or different hues of the same colour in many scenes. Maybe not completely realistic but more natural than other movies where I've seen colours used in the photography. Andrew has always been a respected DP and with Infernal Affairs, a Hong Kong Film Award doesn't seem to far off.
The music by Comfort Chan gave me a bitter taste in my mouth at first. During the police surveillance and subsequent drug bust we hear typical action/thriller music that just feels like it's there because it wants to strike a chord with the hip audience. Really bad but fortunately Comfort skips that totally after this sequence and delivers a score that's very diverse and rarely repeats itself, which is a very good thing.
Look at the cast & crew list and you'll see a bunch of recognizable names, both in front and behind the camera. Director Wong Kar-Wai's cinematographer Christopher Doyle has a visual consultant credit and as co-editor we find Danny Pang (co-director and co-editor on The Eye). In front of the camera, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak have put together a real solid and experienced cast starting with Andy Lau.
10 years ago I wouldn't even dream of ranking him anywhere near Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's acting skills. When I first saw Andy Lau in movies he just seemed more annoying than talented but things have changed since the 1999 movie Running Out Of Time. Andy really showed restraint in that film and with that his charisma took many steps forward. In Infernal Affairs he again shows his cool and charismatic side and his presence doesn't really require him to say or do much. We're not supposed to really hate his character even though he's part of the bad guys. We sense that there may be something more to him (or not) and it's a very interesting character and performance to follow right up until the end.
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai on the other hand has impressed with his acting skills for years! He seems to be bad in very few movies and just like John Woo has said many times, Tony can say a lot with just his eyes. It's a understated performance but there are a few absolutely terrific emotional moments from Tony and he doesn't seem to get any worse as the years go by. He has lots more to give to the industry and I'll be looking forward to every moment of it. As the character of Yan, he displays a frustration of being undercover for long but he doesn't seem lost or too immersed in the world. He knows his job and carries it out with great professionalism. In two very good supporting parts we see Anthony Wong (as Super Intendant Wong) and Eric Tsang as the triad leader Sam. It's a joy to watch these two when they're actually trying to act and especially little chubby goofball Eric displays a nice menace in his performance.
Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs is not a masterpiece, nor is it terrific. After one viewing I consider it to be VERY GOOD but with time that opinion can grow into terrific. Let's just say that I'm planning to rewatch it very soon. This film also brought audiences back to the cinema and hopefully 2003 will be a big turnaround for the Hong Kong film industry.
I hate Megastar dvd's! They're the one Hong Kong dvd company that puts most copyright warnings, clips and Dolby Digital trailers before their movies and none of it can be skipped! To further insult they put a minute long Infernal Affairs dvd intro before....a Sony Minidisc TV spot (which looks like it stars Sam Lee) and then you get to the main menu on this disc!
This is a damn fine looking dvd though! It's a 2 disc set that comes in a nice slipcase that has a different front and back cover art than the amaray package itself. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks great throughout and is only marred by some light speckling and grain here and there.
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track (converted to 2.0 for my Pro Logic setup) is an enveloping experience and sounds excellent even on my setup. Surrounds are used sparsly but when they kick in, it sounds crisp and truly like you're there, a rare thing. A Cantonese DTS 5.1 and a Mandarin DD 5.1 track is also included.
The English subtitles are well written and I noticed no errors whatsoever. For newer Hong Kong movies, the subtitles are generally very good nowadays. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.
This package would've been so much more enjoyable if Megastar had put English subtitles on the extras. There's been effort showed in subtitling these things at one other company but sadly not from Megastar. Therefore us non-Cantonese speakers can't appreciate the audio commentary featuring the cast & crew for example.
The first disc has one extra we can enjoy though and that is an alternative ending (presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and English subtitles) to the movie. This ending was shot specifically for the mainland China market and you can have it branched into the movie through a simple selection in the menu. Nice but I do prefer the Hong Kong theatrical ending myself.
The second disc (named Avicinar Aka for some reason) has the rest of the extras starting with The Story that is nothing more than the plot synopsis in both English and Chinese. Confidential File (8 minutes 47 seconds) is a collection of mostly unnarrated behind the scenes footage including the traditional pre-shoot ceremony. The subtitled but English narrated trailer is also at the end of this segment.
(behind the scenes footage from Confidential File)
Music Video (3 minutes 25 seconds) is the tune sung by Andy Lau and Tony Leung, that also can be heard at the end of the movie. It's an extremely cheap video that only consists of movie clips and a few quick shots of Andy and Tony in the recording studio. It can be listened to in both Cantonese and Mandarin but the video itself is the same for each option.
The Making Of (16 minutes) is, without subtitles, very uninteresting. It features interviews with cast & crew that's intercut with an enormous amount of clips from the film. Some small behind the scenes shots appear but they're too quick and too few to activate any interest in this featurette.
The Making Of (Shot Version) is the same featurette as mentioned above, only divided up into 4 smaller segments. Useless.
(Andy Lau and Anthony Wong interviews from the Making Of)
The Cast & Credits section has two sub sections, one called Cast & Staff listing (which is exactly what the name implies) and the second being Bio & Filmo. The latter contains quite a hefty amount of biographies/filmographies starting with the crew. They are as follows: co-director and co-cinematographer Andrew Lau, co-director and co-writer Alan Mak and visual consultant Christopher Doyle. None of these offer anything but basic info but a nice touch is the Awards and Nominations listings for the movies and people it concerns.
The cast gets a character bio as well as a actor bio/filmography. They're in the following order: Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, Edison Chen, Shawn Yue, Lam Ka Tung, Chapman To, Sammi Cheng, Kelly Chan and Elva Hsiao. The character bios are useful if you forgot what the characters were all about since watching the film but the actors bio's are again very basic and not very insightful.
The Trailers section houses the Teaser and Theatrical trailer for Infernal Affairs as well as a TV spot for the movie. More attractions gives sneak peeks at Cat & Mouse, Naked Weapon and He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not.
(the very cool set of Infernal Affairs toy figures seen in the Souvenir section of the dvd)
Finally the Photo Gallery let's us wade through four different sections called: Lobby Stills (7 images), Posters (12 images), Outdoor Billboard & Banner (10 images) and Souvenir (12 images). I especially enjoyed looking at the high number and varied posters that were produced for the movie. The Souvenir section is very cool also, you can get your own Infernal Affairs toy figures!
There's also an Easter egg on this second disc. Just highlight the Infernal Affairs logo and you'll see a 9 minute blooper/outtake reel. It has a few amusing bits but the rest of the time it's pretty dull.
The amount of extras isn't extensive but it's a step in the right direction for HK dvd companies. Now please make English subtitled extras THE next step in the right direction, Megastar!
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson