Infernal Affairs

As a general rule, Miramax should refrain from buying the domestic distribution rights to any Asian film in the future. They released Hero in a bizarre manner (presented by Quentin Tarantino?) that did make money, yet some could argue that if they pursued a similar strategy to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, they could have made more. Then, they completely botched the release of Shaolin Soccer, pushing back the date continuously until people forgot about the film. It was a smash hit in Asia, but performed poorly here. Third time is not the charm with Infernal Affairs. This red hot Hong Kong import stars two giants of Asian cinema, Tony Leung and Andy Lau, and spawned two sequels (well, one prequel and the other a mix) in a surprisingly short amount of time. Then, Martin Scorcese bought the remake rights (moving the setting to Boston - ugh), with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon tapped to star. Sounds like easy money, but Miramax limply stuck it in theaters with a minimum of publicity, ensuring a quick, undeserved death.

Which should not be the case. Infernal Affairs is a slick film, surprisingly well done for an Asian action film. It shows that filmmakers across the Pacific are learning quickly, and can make movies just as good as their American counterparts. After all, with Hollywood mining both talent (John Woo, Chow-Yun Fat, Jet Li,...) and technique (The Matrix) from Hong Kong, wouldn't it be nice to see one of their films firsthand? Felix Chong (Stolen Love, Shadow) and Mak Sui Fa (Stolen Love, Wishing Tree) wrote an extremely fast-paced story about two moles, one in a triad and the other in the police department, racing to discover each other's identity. Each is on a long-term assignment pushing a decade of undercover work. Superiors recognized Yan Chan Win's (Tony Leung, Hero, Chinese Odyssey) talent early on. They made a show of kicking him out of the Police Academy, so he could start working his way up various criminal organizations. Yan is currently three years into a deep cover assignment, infiltrating Keung's (Chapman To, Honesty, Golden Chicken) drug-running triad. All of his information goes back to Inspector Wong (Anthony Wong, The Medallion, Colour of Truth), who is close to capturing Keung, and is also the only person who knows Yan's identity.

Working for Wong is Ming Lau Kin (Andy Lau, House of Flying Daggers, Fulltime Killer), a deep cover mole for Keung, who worked his way up through the police force in order to give inside information to Keung. After a botched delivery, Keung and Wong realize they have a leak feeding information to the other side, and the race is on to discover who it is. Ironically, Keung taps Yan, and Wong taps Ming to discover where the leak is coming from. In their eyes, each of these men is among the most trustworthy in each organization. Mak, who co-directed with Andrew Lau (Women From Mars, Legend of Tekken) do a good job of keeping the tension level high, with near misses on the parts of both Yan and Ming, as each frequently come within seconds of discovering the other. They also successfully raise the stakes more than once by throwing in some plausible plot twists and a few timely deaths.

And they did well by casting Leung and Lau, two 'actors.' So many Chinese (that's Chinese, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong) actors segue into acting careers after finding success as a singer (Lau has many, many albums out), but so few of them are good actors. By casting somebody with the gravitas of Leung, Mak and Lau (Andrew) are assured of dramatic performances. After so much time on the side of the enemy, both Yan and Ming are wondering who they really are. Do they still believe in their original ideals, or has spending time with the enemy corrupted them? For Yan, he believes that the police abandoned him. They dangle the hope of retirement in his face every time, only to snatch it away in favor of 'one more' assignment. Ming finds that doing good is not as distasteful as some may think. A career in the police force will give him a credibility he will never have as a triad member. This adds a surprising amount of depth into Infernal Affairs. And, refreshingly, it's never clear where the script is heading. Lau and Mak do well by eschewing some of the lame jokes present in other Asian scripts, but they do have some atrocious pop music in their flashback sequences. The main difference between this film and its American counterparts is that the script is not afraid to have a brain. It throws out people and events quickly, forcing the viewer to catch up. There are plenty of gunfights and explosions, but there is actual meaning behind it.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 40 minutes, Cantonese with English subtitles, Rated R for violence.

Back to Movies