Many people only know this movie via its American remake, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, but Maccewill Yip is here to remind you of the original series in his newest re-view for 10YA.
As I begin writing this, the Golden Horse Ceremony, the Chinese version of the Academy Awards, is now playing on television. It’s a kind of weird coincidence because the first time I’ve seen anything about the film Infernal Affairs was from seeing the very same award show years ago and seeing them play a clip several times to announce its nomination in a category and seeing it win in about half of them. The clip they chose was a gunfight between the cops and the triads over a melancholy tune. I became curious about this action film that was winning several awards, and so I went to Chinatown and found a VCD copy, a disc format for films before DVDs that were sold mainly in the Chinese markets.
I became a fan of Infernal Affairs from when I first viewed it to around my first couple of years of college. I have seen both films that follow the first film, the second movie a prequel (about events ten years before the first film up to when Hong Kong went back to China in 1997) and the third one a half-and-half prequel/sequel (about the months before and after the first film). I’ve read the trivia and reviews of the film, including some of the criticism that I will get to when I review the film. I had bemoaned the time when I found out there was going to be a U.S. remake with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio involved, was relieved when I found out Martin Scorsese was directing the remake as The Departed, and celebrated when it won the Academy Award for Scorsese and picked up Best Picture (although still disappointed that the voice-over announcer said that it was based on a Japanese film). However, it was around my second year of college that Infernal Affairs started dropping lower in my list of favorite films, mainly because I began in earnest my love of older films, especially foreign films. Since then I have been watching IA more and more sporadically, so I thought it would be a great movie to rewatch for the Ten Years Ago blog.
First, in case you haven’t seen Infernal Affairs, the story mainly concentrates on two moles: Andy Lau plays Ming, the triad member who is sent to infiltrate the police department starting from a cadet on up; and Tony Leung Chiu Wai is Chen Wing Yan, a cop whose going undercover as a triad thug. They rise in their positions until a botched drug deal/sting makes their respective superiors, mob boss Sam (Eric Tsang) and Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong), discovers that there must be an informant within their midst. The rest of the movie is a cat and mouse of each trying to uncover the other before they themselves are found out.
So what do I think now that I’ve watched it again?
Let me start with the positives, the parts that made me a fan of the movie in the first place:
-For some parts, it was a very smart script in that it let you watch and see what’s happening without having to explain the action. A good example of what I mean is towards the beginning when Ming finds that a triad thug would not talk to the cops until he sees his mob boss-hired lawyer who he have never met in person. Ming dresses up and impersonates the thug’s lawyer, lies to him about the cops preparing a sting at a hideout, and hands the gang member a phone under the table so he could dial his brother at the hide-out and warn him. When Ming leaves the interrogation room, he now can hand his phone to the other cops to trace the number that the thug dialed earlier and find the hideout where the other thugs are. Watching all this played out was great and made you yourself try to follow the plot, sometimes having to re-watch the scene. It was why I was disappointed that when it came to the remake, Matt Damon as the Ming character had to explain the whole ruse instead of just letting it play out and letting the audience figure out what’s going on.
-I also enjoyed the use of action to not only add excitement in the movie, but to drive the plot. I had watched several action/thriller films before, but this was the first one that made me appreciate how much better an action scene is if it actually advances the story. This is one of the reasons I, like I guess with so many people, were against the Transformers films. There are lots of action scenes as eye candy, but at the detriment of the story.
-The acting is still great, with of course Andy Lau and Tony Leung as moles fighting to reconcile their duel lives, but also between Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang as their superiors. During this re-watching though, the actor that got my attention was Chapman To as Keung. Throughout the film, he was mainly a lowly, somewhat dense thug. However, his death scene was great because before it, he’s just driving and you have little to no idea that he was shot and was dying, just parts where you see him once in a while struggling a little and coughing. This was the first film I saw him in, so all the others I’ve seen afterwards, even when he plays a badass, all I can think of is his role in this film.
-One of the themes that run throughout this film is the idea of continual suffering, as in a personal hell. There are two Buddhist verses that bookend the film:
The worst of the Eight Hells is called Continuous Hell. It has the meaning of Continuous Suffering, thus the name.
Says the Buddha: “He who is in Continuous Hell never dies. Longevity is a big hardship in Continuous Hell”
It’s even in the original Chinese title, which is the name of the Continuous Hell. The two moles are each living their own personal hells (and as we find out in IA2, so do SP Wong and Sam), but it seems that even if Yan is the one who dies in the end, it is Ming, in desperate attempts to separate himself from his triad past, is now suffering the worse as he continues living with the deaths he’s responsible for weighing down upon him. It is why during the end at the funeral, when he flashes back to when Yan was kicked out of cadet school and the instructor yelled back who would want to trade in Yan’s place, Ming mournfully replies, “I do.” Unfortunately, the viewers in mainland China didn’t get the ending that conveyed this. So in a scene after the climatic shootings that occur upstairs that leaves two dead bodies in the elevator, as Ming goes down in that same elevator to meet the cops waiting downstairs, in the original ending he flashes his badge and announced that he is a cop, and later creates a story that hides the truth of the events (as shown in the third film). Ming is free, but his actions will wreck an emotional toil that will be his doom in the third film. However, like the old Hayes Production Code in Hollywood, you couldn’t show the bad guy getting away from his crimes. And so there was the alternate ending where once he goes down the elevator and shows his badge, Ming is immediately arrested when the cops below announced some random evidence was found of Ming’s involvement with the triads.
-Here was a minor detail that I saw in the re-watched that I hadn’t noticed before. One of Yan’s flashbacks when he is on the roof with SP Wong is with both of them when they first meet. In one brief moment, you see Yan tap the side of his leg, which was a habit established with Ming. Again, a small moment, but it seems to nicely link the two main moles in the film.
-Another thing I realize with the re-watch is how signs of commercialism are not only prevalent in the film, it in a way to comment on the two main characters. For Ming, it is the dream life he seeks, from the audio equipment he buys to the perfect home he tries to build with his wife. Yan, however, seems to be uncomfortable in such an environment. All he wants is a normal, simple life back. It is probably why he likes being on rooftops, since he is then above all the hectic roles that he deals with down below.
Although there are several positive points in the movie, there are of course some criticism of the film as well as many plot points that I’ve noticed over the several times I’ve watched IA that does not add up.
-Probably one of the biggest criticisms about the first IA is the female roles in the film. There is the psychiatrist, Lee Sum Yee, who was mainly there as a love interest for Yan and not much else except showing that Yan has to go to a psychiatrist because his dual life makes him lash out. There is Ming’s wife, Mary, who is a writer who just happens to be writing a book about a person who has different personalities and can’t figure out if that character in her book is good or not. The only one that seems she might be somewhat interesting was May, a woman we see in only in the middle and end of the film, who we can surmise as someone who use to be Yan’s girlfriend and might be hiding the fact that her daughter might be his. Unfortunately, her role didn’t really develop much in this or any of the other films. However, I’m sure it’s because of these weak female parts that the directors decided for the prequel to have a strong female role in the form of Sam’s wife, whose actions contributed to the chain reaction that led to the events of IA.
-The movie is exciting and moves along fairly quickly, so the first time watching it you can get caught up in the story and not be aware of some of the plot holes that occur in the film. After watching it several times, I’ve noticed:
1. In the beginning, it seems Ming and Yan have met several times: In cadet school, where Ming at least sees Yan get “expelled”; at one point when Ming and a few officers arrest a triad gang with Yan amongst them; and at one point Ming is the one whose holding Yan’s hand as he processes Yan’s fingerprints for his criminal record. It is then strange that they don’t recognize each other when they meet each other at the stereo shop.
2. In the beginning, we’re shown that Sam had sent a few of his crew with the cleanest record to be his moles in the police force. For the most part, we follow Ming; but there is also a nameless mole that we see every once in a while that seems to have been ordered to be Ming’s underling. Although he lays low, it seems that there should have been at least one point early on that should have made some people, especially SP Wong, suspicious that he was a mole. During the first sting operation, SP Wong has their radio frequency channel changed when alerted that Sam is probably listening in on them. To get the new channel, he calls the second mole, who tells Sam the new channel by pretending he is telling another agent who didn’t get the message of the radio change. I would’ve thought this would have made him one of the top person to suspect of being the mole, but it was never brought up afterwards.
3. Speaking of other moles, it’s kind of confusing if Keung, the supposed dumb one in Sam’s gang, is another undercover agent. The only hint we ever get that he is a mole is from the news on television announcing a getaway car with Keung dead inside and it was reported that he was an officer working undercover. Yan use that to tell Sam that it was he who have dealt with Keung and gain the trust of Sam again so he can entrap the mob boss in another sting operation. Again, this was the only time it was ever mentioned that Keung was a cop; it was never even hinted in the other two films. This same plotline problem got carried over to the remake, The Departed.
-Although I mentioned the commercialism theme as a positive aspect of the film, there are times where, to me at least, it gets distracting. One part in particular is seeing the posters for Men in Black II and K19 in the lobby of the movie theater. I know it’s perfectly normal for posters to be in that setting, but the recognizable faces of Harrison Ford, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones seen so openly in the shots just takes me out of the movie every time I see them.
Overall, Infernal Affairs is still a very engaging film with a great overall plot and very interesting themes, especially that of living through a personal Continuous Hell. Yes, there are problematic plot holes, and the female relationships in the film are very trite and clichéd (in parts why I sometimes prefer IA 2), but it has not stopped it from influencing other films. It also has a few remakes, not just the Scorsese film, but also, from what I’ve read, a Korean, a Japanese and a Telugu version of the film. Although it’s not high on my list of movies anymore, I still recommend it, especially to those interested in the direction Hong Kong cinema is going now that most of the fear of meddling from mainland China when the two were joined again in 1997 is slowly dissipating.
Random Thoughts When Watching the Film:
-Still don’t understand how Sam started his criminal career with valet parking.
-Now that I’m a developing audiophile, I was thinking how much I want those tube amps!
-Interesting to note that the first lyrics to the song Yan and Ming listen to is “Who Are You.”
-Again, just didn’t like how they were so explicit on a theme by having Ming’s wife write that book on someone with multiple-personalities.
-What excuse did Ming have to put a tail on SP Wong?
-Elevator skipped fourth floor because four is an unlucky number in Chinese culture, just like how some other buildings in the west skips the thirteenth floor.
-The death of SP Wong that prior to the gunfight scene that I mentioned in the beginning is still pretty shocking and very sad at the same time, even after all the times I’ve seen it.
-Why did Yan dropped and leave Keung’s head on the car horn, bringing attention to whoever is around?
-How did Mary know enough about Yan’s situation that Ming could just leave a voicemail message and tell her what he plans on doing? On the same note of the same scene, how did Ming get the files of Yan’s identification if he deleted it earlier?
-That line Yan deliver, “Unlike you, I’m not afraid of the light,” is just too cheesy.
-Love that bit in the end when the elevator goes down and three shots ring out. The first two puts a bullet holes in the top of the elevator where we can see light leak out, and the third shot blew the light out.
-Also love the end that flashbacks to the scene where Yan gets kicked out of cadet school and when the instructor says, “Who wants to trade places with him?” Ming responds, “I do.” First time we see it, we see Ming is in over his head when young; but the second time the boys are replaced by their adult selves, and Ming now sounds regretful for what he has done in the past.