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Infernal Affairs II
   |     review    |     notes     |     awards     |     availability     |     also see      |     

(from left to right) Anthony Wong, Chapman To, Hu Jun, Shawn Yue,
Edison Chen, Carina Lau, Francis Ng and Eric Tsang in Infernal Affairs II.

Chinese: 無間道 II
Year: 2003
Director: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Alan Mak Siu-Fai
Producer: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung
Writer: Alan Mak Siu-Fai, Felix Chong Man-Keung
Action: Lee Tat-Chiu
Cast: Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Eric Tsang Chi-Wai, Francis Ng Chun-Yu, Carina Lau Ka-Ling, Shawn Yue, Edison Chen, Hu Jun, Chapman To Man-Chat, Roy Cheung Yiu-Yeung, Liu Kai-Chi, Yu Chiu (Chiu Chung-Yu), Kara Hui Ying-Hung, Andrew Lin Hoi, Henry Fong Ping, Arthur Wong Ngok-Tai, Peter Ngor Chi-Kwan, Teddy Chan Tak-Sum, Joe Cheung Tung-Cho, Wan Chi-Keung, Wu Kwan, Kelly Fu Ka-Lei, Alexander Chan, Hera Lam Bik-Yun, Eva Wong Sum-Yu, Brian Ireland, Bey Logan
The Skinny: Prequel to last year's biggest movie manages to succeed spectacularly. Infernal Affairs II can't match the first film's star wattage, but it more than compensates with a fine ensemble, well-developed drama, and a few surprises. Bring on IA3!
by Kozo:

Okay, 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 ensue—a 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 come.

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 desire—and eventual resolution—with 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 everyone—both the characters AND the audience—something 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 effectively—thanks to Andrew Lau and Alan Mak—and 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)

Notes: Though the DVD is marked for Region 3, it is apparently an all-region disc, and can be played in every other NTSC DVD player known to man. It is unclear if this is simply a printing error or if the disc will be corrected in future pressings.
Awards: 23rd Annual Hong Kong Film Awards
• Winner - Best Original Song ("Cheung Hong", performed by Beyond)
• Nomination - Best Picture
• Nomination - Best Director (Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Alan Mak Siu-Fai)
• Nomination - Best Actor (Francis Ng Chun-Yu)
• Nomination - Best Actress (Carina Lau Ka-Ling)
• Nomination - Best Supporting Actor (Liu Kai-Chi)
• Nomination - Best Supporting Actor (Chapman To Man-Chat)
• Nomination - Best Screenplay (Alan Mak Siu-Fai,Felix Chong Man-Keung)
• Nomination - Best Cinematography (Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Ng Man-Ching)
• Nomination - Best Editing (Danny Pang Fat, Pang Ching-Hei)
• Nomination - Best Original Score (Chan Kwong-Wing)
• Nomination - Best Sound Effects (Kinson Tsang King-Cheung)
10th Annual Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards

• Best Picture
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC (Marked as Region 3)
Media Asia
2-Disc Special Edition
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
Trailers, Featurettes, Outtakes, Photo Gallery, Deleted Scenes
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
Also see: Infernal Affairs (2002)
Infernal Affairs III (2003)
Find this at YesAsia

image courtesy of Media Asia Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen