Infernal Affairs II (2003)

Directed by: Andrew Lau & Alan Mak
Written by: Alan Mak & Felix Chong
Producer: Andrew Lau
Starring: Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, Francis Ng, Carina Lau, Edison Chen & Shawn Yue

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Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2004:
Best Original Song Cheung Hong (Wide Open Space)
Music: Steve Wong
Lyrics: Steve Wong & Yip Sai-Wing
Performed by: Beyond

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2004:
Best Picture
Best Director (Andrew Lau & Alan Mak)
Best Screenplay (Alan Mak & Felix Chong)
Best Actor (Francis Ng)
Best Actress (Carina Lau)
Best Supporting Actor (Liu Kai-Chi)
Best Supporting Actor (Chapman To)
Best Cinematography (Andrew Lau & Ng Man-Ching)
Best Editing (Danny Pang & Pang Ching-Hei)
Best Original Film Score (Comfort Chan)
Best Sound Effects (Kinson Tsang)

Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2004:
Best Picture

The success of Infernal Affairs both financially and in terms of awards not so unexpectedly prompted the team to expand the story. The result is this prequel (and a third part that, at the time of writing, premieres in just a few days) that takes us back to the period 1991-1997 in the life of moles Lau and Yan, this time portrayed in youthful form by Edison Chen (Princess-D) and Shawn Yue (Just One Look). Veterans Eric Tsang and Anthony Wong reprise their roles in addition to Francis Ng & Carina Lau joining the cast. Infernal Affairs II was met with good box-office, fairly positive reviews plus thankfully somewhat of an assurance that the teen idols taking Andy Lau and Tony Leung's roles weren't given the task of carrying the picture. Certainly Hong Kong cinema knows how to milk a concept, co-director Andrew Lau being one of them with his Young & Dangerous series so should they have stopped at one movie for the Infernal Affairs series? Certainly not.

In 1991, Mary (Carina Lau), wife of Sam (Eric Tsang) sets in motion a series of events by ordering Lau King Ming (Edison Chen) to murder Kwun, the most powerful crime boss in Hong Kong. Sam on the other hand has sworn allegiance to Kwun and Mary makes the decision of not letting him in on the plans. Son of Kwun, Hau (Francis Ng), is given the highest power now and the police, headed by Inspector Wong (Anthony Wong) and Super Intendent Luk (Hu Jun) are on high alert, expecting a revenge to take place soon. Chan Wing Yan (Shawn Yue) is the son of Kwun and half-brother of Hau which leads to him facing a dismissal from his police force training Yan has severed all ties with that part of the family tree but he's only given a chance to stay a cop by going undercover in the triads, working for his half-brother. Also, Sam sends his own mole, Lau King Ming, to infiltrate the police force. The legend starts here...

Hong Kong film has during the last few years fallen in love with a superficial style of filmmaking akin to Hollywood blockbusters but the original Infernal Affairs proved that you could go for international appeal while still making sure you're doing Hong Kong cinema. It benefited from a tight script, constantly high production values and a cast that made it rise way above pretty much everything from the genre output in 2002 (not a hard task but still...). Now with its prequel, the key team of Andrew Lau, Alan Mak and writer Felix Chong are going for epic scale.

Is it unfair to claim that Infernal Affairs II wants to be The Godfather? Not really in my opinion but regardless, this part, now focusing heavily on the conflict between rival gangs, manages to come out on top in several areas. Technically and performance wise it nails but if any shortcoming is to be found is that it all is a bit much to take in at once. There are examples of movies growing on you on subsequent viewings and I have a gut feeling this will do but for the sake of judging the film on its first viewing, parts of the scripts comes off as slightly muddled. For the majority of the running time though, Lau and Mak keep a marvelous good focus on characters, new and old, and their role in this installment.

The team of directors captures you from frame one with a monologue from Anthony Wong's character. A speech familiar from other movies but after the conclusion of that, Lau and Mak begins throwing new, or rather old, character relations at us. We see that Wong and Sam at this point in time (1991) were indeed on opposite sides of the law but were more respectful foes than seen in Infernal Affairs. It works as a trigger for our curiosity and it's not the only unexpected twist from what we saw in the first installment. New characters such as Mary, wife of Sam, Hau, head of the criminal Ngai family and half-brother of Yan, are introduced and we are kind of worried that this will be overwhelming. It is initially but it doesn't take long to sort people out. The story elements such as the rivalry within the criminal world, just as Infernal Affairs was as a whole, doesn't break new ground but I'll repeat myself here. It's all about execution and while Infernal Affairs II works with a little bit too much, the directors create genuine involvement, especially for the viewers with a good knowledge of the first film.

It's only towards the very end that things become a bit muddled. You're in there in bursts and ultimately if you're slightly lost, you WILL get the whole meaning at a basic level. That is then a sign of a good work by the directors whom I believe have in mind subsequent viewings. Alan Mak and Felix Chong's script could've gone even more overboard but throughout they have created several new, interesting threads between characters that will bring greater emotional resonance to events already seen in Infernal Affairs and hopefully in the third film. Hong Kong cinema aren't constantly blessed with dedication so despite negatives, there's many, many positives for Infernal Affairs II.

At 2 hours, the movie is paced very well and if you feel the story is not sizzling enough for you, the production will impress. Hong Kong cinema has, as I said, taken a Hollywood style into their films but Infernal Affairs managed to almost scale all that away in favour of story. Part 2 manages to do that even better because cinematographers Andrew Lau and Ng Man Ching left the MTV style at home (and they didn't bring it to the editing room either). Gone are the quick cuts set to sound effects and the strong colours. Admittedly, Infernal Affairs wasn't as guilty of the latter but it's wonderful to see Lau and company taking down the green colour scheme to a minimal level (I would rather see it gone but you can't have everything). They instead emphasizes clarity and naturalism while still having a commercial look in mind. It all blends so good and the actors are really well lit as well. Comfort Chan, the composer, takes a few steps backwards though. The majority of his score is choir based, which is spot on used at the middle point of the film where everyone has passed the point of no return and going into their continuous hell (the theme that continues from the first installment). The misstep he takes is to build on that through the movie and emotional moments are way too manipulative at times. There are enough imagery here to have us caring anyway and Chan does show throughout that he is capable of stripping away the layers of music. So it's a shame the score in the end ranks the lowest out of all the elements in the film.

With such a famous cast, the good writing on display gets taken to great levels at times. Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang returns and do great work at developing their past relationship for the viewer. Tony is the weary, tired Wong that works alongside a younger superior, Luk, played by Hu Jun. The events over the years brings out hidden emotions and depth in Wong that Tony doesn't miss a beat in performing. Pure class. Eric Tsang brings back that playfulness to Sam but the menace develops ever so slightly through the film. You've always been fooled in thinking he hasn't got what it takes but it's a more sly character than the surroundings ever could see.

The biggest suspension of disbelief in the whole saga would have to that Andy Lau and Tony Leung looked like Edison Chen and Shawn Yue earlier in their youth as characters. That's something that happens with movies constantly so I can let that go more easily. Shawn fills the shoes of Tony Leung quite nicely in a performance that requires more silent acting. Yan's development is about the undercover life taking its toll on him mentally plus the fact that there's now personal feelings involved since he's secretly working against his half-brother. I think Shawn Yue, when directed well, could break out big in a few years time. He has good charisma for his age and does justice to the development of Yan during this 90s period in which the film is set. Him & Edison Chen get relatively little screentime but are injected and present at the crucial points in the story. Edison, the ever so dorky, Edison though. He is a dorky kid and that worked to his advantage in Princess-D, a performance I liked. As long as he says little, does little, he can be tolerable. He does ok as Lau, the triad's mole working his way up in the police force and has a strong directing team backing him up. That means he's directed so that he doesn't fully become a distraction and brings out the development HE is going through. I'm glad to see him go though. He's one of the one too many pop stars sadly inhabiting the Hong Kong cinema.

Last but not least and probably the greatest performance in the film undoubtedly comes from So Good...'s absolute favourite (if you haven't already guessed by now), Francis Ng. His name is widely respected in the fan community and he's one actor that has worked so much that he's also left thrash films behind him. This is his best 2003 performance though. Hau is quiet, mild-mannered, ruthless at select few times, and so on top of his game. That requires qualities to performing that a few actors actually could pull off also but not equally well. It requires texture to everything from your body language to your every mannerism and Francis brings out that wonderfully well. It's been a while since he's provided us with a performance like this and I hope the expected popularity of Infernal Affairs will increase the fan base of this terrific actor. Chapman To and Roy Cheung also appear. The latter logs a wordless performance while Chapman continues to be the buffoon he was in the first film. Having said that, even his character gets to develop ever so slightly and it's clear he's dependable, not just very smart.

The flaws of Infernal Affairs II are flaws and therefore it doesn't beat the impact of part 1. It does however, in a powerful way, take us back the initial backstory of our main characters while further expanding the theme of continuous hell, which is an interesting one to me. I came out a bit stuffed after 2 hours but I'm sure some elements to characters will be more easily digested a second time around. With the Infernal Affairs movies, Hong Kong cinema may have found something that can break out internationally and it's not an action movie.

The DVD:

Megastar again forces the viewer to sit through logos etc. before the main menu loads up but it's not too bad since we see a teaser trailer for the movie at hand before making our menu choices. Nice way to get into the mood. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is a lovely thing with strong colours, detail and depth. Slight print damage is seen at the beginning but stays clear for most of the running time.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track is superbly produced with music being the dominant element. Even if it's a flawed score, it envelopes the viewer greatly at points and all other aspects of the soundtrack are presented well. A Cantonese DTS 5.1 option and a Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin dub is also available.

The English subtitles has a few slight errors but are excellent otherwise. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available.

This is a 2 Disc set with the first disc, entitled The Legend, holding only one extra and that is the Cantonese language audio commentary with the Cast & Crew. Only traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are available for this track. Being such a high profile release, it's a shame time wasn't taken to make this extra available to non-Cantonese speakers.

We move on to the 2nd disc where the rest of the extras reside but first we're greeted to a mobile phone ad. Thankfully you can skip it. Let's start from top to bottom shall we?

Select The Story and you get something as exciting as 3-screen plot synopsis (available in English and Chinese). Useless since this is also printed on the back cover. A note about the packaging, in a nice touch, the outer sleeve has different front cover art than the inner front artwork. The slipcase shows Shawn Yue, Carina Lau and Edison Chen while the rest of the main cast is fully revealed on the inner artwork.

Deleted Scene is actually 4 clips, 2 of which are extensions (as far as I could gather). No subtitles are provided so I can't judge on the importance and quality of these.

Confidential File (5 minutes, 43 seconds) is a similar piece to that found on the dvd of the first Infernal Affairs. No subtitles are needed for this program that takes us to the traditional ceremony prior to shooting and a few nice, lighthearted behind the scenes moments (not counting the bit where the camera crew almost gets run over) are subsequently provided.

The Making Of can be played in full or in short bursts via the additional 4 options in this section. The shorter programs are different edits but to the best of my knowledge, all its content can be found in the full making of. The total running time is 21 minutes, 55 seconds and the program comes with burned in English subtitles. As an intro, we suitably hear talk of the real acting talent involved before we launch into the first half where the cast & crew mainly talk about characters. What follows in the second half is an unexpected and honest discussion about acting that normally doesn't get a huge part in these programs. There's no over the top praise of the young cast and the ever so honest Anthony Wong thinks they both have a long way to go. It's a good start however says Francis about Shawn Yue.

(Francis Ng, sporting his Shiver hairdo, and Anthony Wong being interviewed in the making of)

Trailers holds the teaser for Infernal Affairs II (same clip that plays before the main menu on disc 1), its theatrical trailer, international trailer, video trailer and 6 TV spots (the 3 minute version option plays several versions). These all sell the movie very well, especially when cutting together images set to the best parts of Comfort Chan's score. The English trailer voice for the international clip does detract somewhat from the overall impact though. After a while, the choosen structure to the this advertising start to become repetitive also but it's a solid section of the disc. Under More Attractions you'll find perhaps the coolest extra on the second platter; teaser and international trailer for Infernal Affairs III. All clips feature burned in English subtitles. The Music Video by Beyond, mixes movie footage and the band performing the theme song on a rooftop. Pretty dull and I'm not that psyched about the song either.

Cast & Credits has two sub sections, first called Cast & Staff listing. It is exactly that, no info at all but that comes under the selection Bio & Filmo. Co-director/producer/co-cinematographer Andrew Lau and co-director/co-writer Alan Mak get super short biographies and filmographies in both English and Chinese. The actors get short character bio's as well (in English and Chinese) plus there's a play button for each one that takes you to 1 minute clips focusing on that particular character. Mixing quick-cut behind the scenes footage with cast & crew interviews, this segments doesn't provide any great depth and for the most part have already been seen in the longer making of. All clips feature burned in English subtitles. The Photo Gallery (17 screens) showcases both the usual lobby stills and the variety of poster art used for the film. Nice to look at once. Also included in the disc's case are 4 bookmarks with the main cast, in the familiar poses from the advertising art.

An Easter Egg is also available on the 2nd disc also. Press right to highlight the Infernal Affairs II-logo and press enter on your remote. It'll take you to a short outtakes/blooper reel (1 minute 59 seconds). For those of you that can understand this untranslated clip, maybe there's a chuckle or two to be found but as most programs of this sort, it's just not very interesting.

Megastar have now taken a few steps forward by providing English subtitles for part of the extras. I wish they would've had the deleted scenes and the commentary in mind in regards to that but progress is progress. Let's hope we see Megastar will take the next big step into becoming a really major player in the Hong Kong dvd market.

reviewed by Kennneth Brorsson