how did they do it? Given the fact that Infernal
Affairs was a blockbuster of untold proportions
AND a damned decent cops-and-robbers thriller to boot,
how did the filmmakers deliver a prequel that succeeded
as well as this one? Infernal Affairs II sets
the wayback machine to a full ten years before the
events in Infernal Affairs, adds new characters,
brings back all the old ones, and actually manages
to tell an involving crime story that supports and
even enhances the storyline of the original. Those
who dug ONLY the mega-star pairing of Andy Lau and
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai might find IA2's ensemble
a little too superstar-impaired, but those who enjoyed
the original's cinematic storytelling and genre characterization
should be more than happy.
The film starts back
in 1991. Officer Wong (Anthony Wong) is still busting
triads, but his eventual nemesis Sam (Eric Tsang)
is still a lowly sub-boss. Sam is beneath the powerful
Ngai family, but the family gets thrown into disarray
when the head of the family (Joe Cheung) gets murdered.
The hitman is no stranger to the audience: Ming, played
in IA1 by Andy Lau, and here as a youngun by
Edison Chen. Ming did the deed at the behest of Sam's
wife Mary (Carina Lau), who takes the young guy under
her wing. Meanwhile, Officer Wong and Sam actually
share a minor friendship, as Wong views Sam as the
lesser of the triad evils. But the hit on the elder
Ngai means a power struggle could ensuea possibility
that's crushed by the quick ascent of the eldest Ngai
son, Hau (Francis Ng), to the top seat in the triad.
Hau takes the seat, brings the other bosses in line,
and presto: the OCTB has a top nemesis for years to
Enter young Yan (Tony
Leung in IA1, Shawn Yue in younger form). A
rising cadet, he gets summarily dismissed because
he's actually the half-brother of Hau. This leads
to his enlistment as an undercover (outlined in the
first film), and his eventual employment for the Ngai
family. The problem exists: who will he be loyal to,
family or the cops? His contacts in the law include
Officer Wong and Officer Luk (Hu Jun), whose morality
and righteous determination are an inspiration to
both Yan and Officer Wong. Wong could actually use
the inspiration, because he's not as righteous as IA1 would have us believe. He actually has
secret ties to Mary, which are unknown to Sam and
potentially damaging to Wong. Furthermore, Hau is
more cunning and dangerous than he appears, which
could prove potentially damning to Sam, who still
seems somewhat naive for an avowed crime boss. Plus
Ming continues to lurk in the background, slowly rising
up the police ranks, quietly collecting information,
and secretly coveting the older Mary. Something's
gotta give, and though the outcome is known (see IA1 to get the final scoop), the road it takes to get
there holds some surprises of its own.
The outcome here is predetermined:
Wong and Sam will eventually become bitter enemies,
and Ming and Yan will become diametrically opposed
moles. Writers Felix Chong and Alan Mak could have
taken the easy route with the situation, and crafted
a similar sort of mole vs. mole action with Edison
Chen and Shawn Yue standing in for Andy Lau and Tony
Leung Chiu-Wai. However, the writers apparently decided
that the gold of the original film was not the concept,
but the characters. Infernal Affairs II takes
place during three distinct years: 1991, 1995 and
1997. The reasons behind this are at once structural
(three years, three acts) and historical (1997=handover),
but it also elevates Infernal Affairs to wannabe-Godfather mythic status. With history as the backdrop, the characters
are asked to evolve until they reach that fabled time:
2001, when Infernal Affairs happens and three
of the four main characters cash in their chips. The
conceit is a dangerous one. By making the IA saga an epic tale, the writers risk exaggerating the
conflicts beyond good tension-building crime drama
into "this means something" Greek tragedy.
The Godfather films had enough history to back
up an epic tale, but Infernal Affairs has ten
years in which to create a supposed "legend"
(which is what the DVD packaging sells the films as).
Is Infernal Affairs really that big a deal?
Well, probably not.
History does provide a good structure for the story,
but the trials of Wong, Sam, Yan and Ming don't encompass
any sort of metaphorical journey of the Hong Kong
from 1991-2001. The fears and hopes of the Hong Kong
people are not encapsulated by the overwrought shenanigans
of cops and robbers, no matter how dramatic or well-staged
they may be. IA2 essentially climaxes at the
Handover, though the reasoning for such is questionable.
Had the filmmakers chosen to set the film during any
other time, it's unlikely that the story would have
been hurt in the slightest.
However, what Infernal
Affairs II does do well is establish character.
Some characters are ringers, like Hu Jun's too-righteous
Luk. He's not in the film long enough to matter, but
the affect he has on both Wong and Yan does matter.
Likewise, Mary is a defining character for young Ming,
whose need for personal status and self-gratification
can be seen plainly through his desireand eventual
resolutionwith Mary. Likewise, the machinations
of Hau, the subtle growth of Yan, and the revelations
of certain characters all bear real dramatic fruit.
As crime dramas go, Infernal Affairs II is
tops. It takes types and makes something of them,
and even though some of its strokes are a bit too
far-reaching (Chapman To DID NOT have to be in this
film) or contrived (Yan is Hau's half-brother? Wong
and Sam were involved with the same woman?), the ways
in which the conflicts and situations define the characters
is exceptional. As a standalone film, IA2 could
probably seen as too-contrived and too obviously over-connected
(everybody knows everybody else, apparently), but
as the prequel to Infernal Affairs it gives
everyoneboth the characters AND the audiencesomething
to chew on. It's like reading good pulp fiction.
Then there's the acting.
Eric Tsang and Anthony Wong turn in their usual solid
performances, though neither stands out as well as
they did in the original film. Instead, Francis Ng
impresses with a quietly controlling performance,
and Carina Lau brings a mature and believable sexiness
to the role of Mary. Fine support is provided by Roy
Cheung, in a wordless, but physically dynamic performance,
and Hu Jun, who is too charismatic an actor to have
to suffer through dubbing. Shawn Yue surprises by
managing to project some of Yan's inner torture, and
even adopts some of Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's more subtle
personal tics. Edison Chen is Edison Chen; you can
pretty much take him or leave him. While he does resemble
a young Andy Lau, he doesn't do much more than glower
and act in an annoyingly inert fashion. His laconic
badboy act doesn't do justice to the almost sinister
demeanor that Andy Lau gave Ming in the original IA.
Chen doesn't really hurt the film, but acting lessons
(or electroshock therapy) might not be a bad idea.
What's best about Infernal
Affairs II is ultimately what was best about the
first film: it tells a good story effectivelythanks
to Andrew Lau and Alan Makand does so without
a lot of needless crowd-pleasing filler. In that respect,
IA2 is probably more successful than the original,
as it doesn't feel the need to reward audiences with
mega-star couplings (Andy and Sammi! Tony and Kelly!
Eric and Chinese Take Out!). It also doesn't resort
to the obvious to explain its characters. At film's
end, the characters are firmly set on the road that
will lead them to IA1, but the outright conflicts
of IA1 (Yan's self-flaggelation at the undercover
life, Wong and Sam's bitter rivalry) are not spelled
out with big, bold letters or large declarations of
personal purpose. When the credits roll, the characters
are left to simmer until we see them in IA1,
and it's possible that the original film could be
improved by a consecutive viewing with IA2.
As separate films neither is truly that great, but
together they manage to be rewarding and intelligent,
and proof that Hong Kong commercial film can still
pack a punch.
Now if only they can nail
Infernal Affairs III. (Kozo 2003)