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Infernal Affairs
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Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai face off in Infernal Affairs.

Chinese: 無間道
Year: 2002
Director: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Alan Mak Siu-Fai
Producer: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung
Writer: Alan Mak Siu-Fai, Felix Chong Man-Keung
Action: Dion Lam Dik-On
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Eric Tsang Chi-Wai, Sammi Cheng Sau-Man, Kelly Chen, Elva Hsiao, Chapman To Man-Chat, Gordon Lam Ka-Tung, Edison Chen, Shawn Yue, Berg Ng Ting-Yip, Wan Chi-Keung, Dion Lam Dik-On, Tony Ho Wah-Chiu, Yuen Wai-Ho, Osman Hung Chi-Kit, Eddie Peng Wai-On
The Skinny: Top-notch commercial filmmaking starring more big names than any Hong Kong film probably deserves. Despite some contrivances and plot holes, this is a gripping and thoroughly entertaining crime thriller with fine performances from the principal cast.
by Kozo:

With little actual warning, the HK cops-and-robbers thriller Infernal Affairs destroyed all comers this past Christmas season. At over 55 million Hong Kong dollars, the film has gone on to become the territory's second highest-grossing local film behind Shaolin Soccer. Cries of "Box Office Miracle" were trumpeted by Hong Kong's so-called fourth estate, which advanced the opinion that Hong Kong Cinema was revived. Still, it would be preferable if a box-office revival came with an actual good motion picture. Thankfully, they pulled it off; despite some flaws, Infernal Affairs is pretty good stuff.

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai stars as Yan, a police mole in the triads for the past ten years. He's been deep, deep undercover for so long that he's started to question his focus and sanity. Meanwhile, he has a mirror opposite on the other side. Andy Lau is Ming, a rising cop who's secretly a triad mole. For the same ten years, he's been feeding information to Sam (Eric Tsang), a ruthless triad kingpin who Yan currently works for. Sam's archenemy is Organized Crime and Triad Bureau Inspector Wong (Anthony Wong), who's Yan's only link to the police force. On a routine drug bust, both sides discover the presence of a mole within their ranks, and both sides charge their respective undercover with finding the offending party. However, Ming's exact loyalties are not entirely clear, which may mean problems for both Sam and Inspector Wong. Meanwhile, Yan tries not to be killed by either side.

Other than the killer concept, there's really nothing ultra new about Infernal Affairs. The mirror-image cop/criminal thing has been done to death in everything from Running Out of Time to Face/Off, and Infernal Affairs doesn't really get out from beneath that. The concept of opposing moles adds an extra layer, but it's still nothing more than a minor tweak to genre convention. The weak female roles are a good example of how Infernal Affairs typifies its genre. Kelly Chen appears as Dr. Lee, Yan's appointed psychiatrist and probably the greatest-looking health practitioner ever. However, despite Chen's presence, Dr. Lee doesn't do much more than provide Yan with a love interest, and Taiwanese singer Elva Hsiao's ballyhooed cameo is obligatory character backstory. If either woman had been lost, it likely wouldn't have hurt the film at all.

Conversely, the character of Ming's girlfriend Mary is underused. As played by Sammi Cheng, she's an overly spritely novelist who spouts metaphorical dialogue as if there were no tomorrow. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't use her character to further flesh out Ming. Ming is a bad guy who wants to be a good guy, but our only real clue to this is his apparent reticence when he first enrolls in the police academy. The young Ming is played fittingly by Edison Chen, who shines in roles requiring only three lines of dialogue and no wannabe gangster posturing. When Chen is onscreen, we see that Ming wants no part of the undercover life; but when Andy Lau takes over, his objections to the life of a mole seem external: big promotions, new apartment, bubbly girlfriend. If he's outed as a triad mole then he loses those things—a prime motivation for wanting to be good. Those things aren't properly explored; sometimes, it seems that he simply is tired of being controlled by Sam.

What it all comes down to is "why." Yan wants to ditch the undercover life because he's tired of living in darkness. Ming wants to get out for seemingly selfish reasons, but is that entirely true? The moral murkiness that's offered up makes Ming seem only self-involved, and not really a mixture of good or evil. Andy Lau does a fine job with the character, and even brings a sinister quality to the proceedings. Then again, it would have been nice to have some confirmation of what exactly was going on with Ming. The character work in Infernal Affairs has been lauded by a variety of critics. It happens to be excellent genre work, but no new ground is truly covered, and in Ming's case potential was wasted.

However, what Infernal Affairs gets absolutely right is the thrill of the chase. There are some contrivances along the way (With a molehunt going on, wouldn't the respective moles freeze physical meetings with the opposing side?), but the mounting chase between the two leading characters creates gripping cinematic tension. Likewise, the fates of certain characters are affecting, and some of the plot twists are genuinely compelling. Co-directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak manage the film well, providing sharp, efficient direction and the presence of mind to not deviate too frequently into unnecessary filler. It probably made some people happy to throw in the obligatory romantic subplots, but the directors wisely spend little time there.

The rest of the production is similarly top-notch. The other male actors are fine in their iconic roles. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai brings his subtle strengths as an actor to the tried-and-true character of Yan, and Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang and Chapman To (as Yan's triad buddy) are excellent in their roles. Wong, especially, makes the rather small part of Inspector Wong a memorable one. His subtle underplaying creates more of a character than probably existed on paper. Furthermore, the cinematography (by Andrew Lau and Lai Yiu-Fai, with an assist from Christopher Doyle) is exemplary. This may be the most fittingly shot film of the year, with the dark, cool colors of the triad underworld contrasting with the stark, bright beauty of Hong Kong's daytime cityscape. A lot of this stuff is award material; expect to see Hong Kong Film Award nominations for many of the participants involved.

Still, the question does come up: was Infernal Affairs worthy of all money made at the box office? Given its massive box-office take, some might judge the film to be a victim of massive hype, and be disappointed at the result. Such thinking isn't entirely beyond understanding; this isn't Shaolin Soccer, a film which was simultaneously familiar, original and thrillingly engaging. Infernal Affairs is simply good, solid commercial work with a marvelous production and some fine actors at the top of their game. It's a prime example of massive synergy, where you take the best of what's available and use it to its fullest. Forget fresh, inspired plotlines or startling thematic originality; this is simply a well-made, familiar storyline with all the big stars appearing in the same movie at the same time. And really, isn't a Hong Kong film like that worth the price of admission? (Kozo 2003)

Notes: • The Mainland got an alternate ending to the film, which can be viewed on the Media Asia 2-disc DVD. That ending, which assures us that crime does not pay, may be comforting to some justice officials, but it only cheapens the film.
Media Asia promises a prequel to this film with Edison Chen and Shawn Yue showing up as respectively, the young Ming and Yan. Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang will reprise their characters and Francis Ng will be on board as a new character. Presumably, the film WILL NOT equal the box-office take of the original.
As of summer 2003, Warner Brothers owns US remake rights to Infernal Affairs, and is fast-tracking the film for Brad Pitt's production company. Pitt will likely play one of the two lead characters.
As of fall 2004, the Infernal Affairs US remake is slated to be directed by Martin Scorsese, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as the leads. We have no idea what happened to Brad Pitt.
In fall 2004, Infernal Affairs was released in North America by Miramax. The film was uncut and undubbed, but only given a release on five screens, all in New York City. The official North American Video release is scheduled for December 2004, and the cover art features a gun-toting girl in hot pants with Elva Hsiao's head zippered onto her body. Please send your complaints here.
In fall 2006, the Infernal Affairs remake, titled The Departed, was released in North America by Warner Brothers. Despite the hopes of rabid Infernal Affairs fans, it's actually a pretty good film.
The Departed ended up winning the Best Picture trophy at the Academy Awards, and Martin Scorsese was honored with his first Best Director Oscar. Sadly, the voiceover dude referred to the film as a remake of "the Japanese film Infernal Affairs". Somebody apologized later.
Awards: 22nd Annual Hong Kong Film Awards
• Winner - Best Picture
• Winner - Best Director (Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Alan Mak Siu-Fai)
• Winner - Best Actor (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai)
• Winner - Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang)
• Winner - Best Screenplay (Alan Mak Siu-Fai, Felix Chong)
• Winner - Best Editing (Danny Pang Fat, Pang Ching-Hei)
• Winner - Best Original Song (performed by Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai)
• Nomination - Best Actor (Andy Lau Tak-Wah)
• Nomination - Best Supporting Actor (Eric Tsang Chi-Wai)
• Nomination - Best Supporting Actor (Chapman To Man-Chat)
• Nomination - Best Cinematography (Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Lai Yiu-Fai)
• Nomination - Best Costume Design (Lee Pik-Kwan)
• Nomination - Best Action Design (Dion Lam Dik-On)
• Nomination - Best Original Score (Chan Kwong-Wing)
• Nomination - Best Sound Effects (Tsang King-Cheung)
• Nomination - Best Visual Effects
40th Annual Golden Horse Awards
• Winner - Best Picture
• Winner - Best Director (Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Alan Mak Siu-Fai)
• Winner - Best Actor (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai)
• Winner - Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang)
• Winner - Best Sound Effects (Tsang King-Cheung)
• Winner - Audience Award
• Nomination - Best Actor (Andy Lau Tak-Wah)
• Nomination - Best Original Screenplay (Alan Mak Siu-Fai, Felix Chong)
• Nomination - Best Editing (Danny Pang Fat, Pang Ching-Hei)
• Nomination - Best Cinematography (Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Lai Yiu-Fai)
• Nomination - Best Art Direction (Choo Sung Pong, Wong Ching-Ching)
• Nomination - Best Action Design (Dion Lam Dik-On)
9th Annual Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards
• Recommended Film
• Best Actor (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang)
8th Annual Golden Bauhinia Awards
• Winner - Best Picture
• Winner - Best Director (Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Alan Mak Siu-Fai)
• Winner - Best Actor (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai)
• Winner - Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang)
• Winner - Best Screenplay (Alan Mak Siu-Fai, Felix Chong)
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
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
Various Extras
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
Also see: Infernal Affairs II (2003)
Infernal Affairs III (2003)

image courtesy of Media Asia Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen