Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 20/03/2004.
Infernal Affairs 2 got a brief UK theatrical release: Infernal Affairs 3 went straight to video. A couple of years later Martin Scorsese remade the first film as The Departed, and it won four Oscars. It wasn't as good as the original, though.
Nirvana Sutra, Verse 19: 'The worst of the Eight Hells is called Continuous Hell. It has the meaning of Continuous Suffering, thus the name.'
Rick Baker, where are you now? Back in 1994, he was to all intents and purposes Mr Hong Kong Movies in London. An irrepressible and unapologetic fanboy, equally at home with kung fu, heroic bloodshed and Cat III filth, he organised film screenings and brought over the big names of Hong Kong cinema for personal appearances. In this way, he created a large and rabid fanbase of equally eager followers, whom he could then exploit mercilessly by selling them videos in his Eastern Heroes shop. But we didn't mind being exploited: he was right. These movies were inventive, wild, and unlike anything else you could see in cinemas.
Ten years on, it's a different story. The last public sighting of Rick Baker was three years ago, as Jonathan Ross' sidekick in a cheesy BBC Choice series called Stop! Kung Fu. Those big name Hong Kong stars and directors have, for the most part, moved over to Hollywood and conquered the mainstream from within. Back in Hong Kong, after the 1997 handover to China, the filmmakers left behind have been making more and more lacklustre movies. Everyone knows it, including the HK industry itself: but nobody seemed to want to do anything about that. Until in 2002, directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak gritted their teeth and accepted a challenge: to make a Hong Kong crime thriller that could realistically hold its own in the international market.
Infernal Affairs was the result. It has a plot that we've seen in Hong Kong cinema dozens of times, probably most famously in John Woo's Hard Boiled. Undercover cop Chan Wing Yan (Tony Leung) has got himself so far into a Triad gang that he can't remember who his loyalties are to any more: Wong, the police chief who knows his secret (Anthony Wong), or Sam, the boss of his gang (Eric Tsang). But how about this for a complication: at the same time, Sam has managed to plant his own undercover mole in the police force, the ambitious Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau). This double set of double crosses is efficiently set up in the pre-credits sequence: all that's left to do is stand back and watch the two informers mentally tearing themselves apart, as they're put under pressure to smoke each other out without exposing their own deception.
As far as the genre goes, this is a cracking return to form: recalling the melodramatic punch of John Woo at his best, while keeping the violence down to a minimum. The four principals have spent a couple of decades apiece doing these sorts of movies, and all give performances close to career best. Leung has the showier role because he's on the borderline of total breakdown for most of the film, but Lau's quiet cool is just as impressive (and this is the first role I can think of where he hasn't just coasted on his obvious charm).
The film has quite a swish, almost Hollywood gloss to it (Wong Kar-Wai's cinematographer Chris Doyle gets a mysterious 'visual consultant' credit). Sometimes the editing gets a little MTVish, but there are a lot of subtle visual touches: I particularly liked the way that the most spectacular piece of violence is almost thrown away in the background of one shot. But what really sets this above the norm is the complexity and intelligence of its script: most HK thrillers have the odd moment where you're invited to marvel at the smarts of a lead character, whereas Infernal Affairs seems to be constructed almost entirely out of those moments.
Avici Hell. Also known as Continuous Hell. Uninterrupted time. Unlimited space. Boundless suffering for the fallen souls.
At the time of writing, Infernal Affairs has been playing in British cinemas for a couple of weeks, to generally excellent reviews. But it was originally released in Hong Kong just over a year ago: and since then, two sequels have been made, which have been released theatrically in Hong Kong and are already both out on region-free DVD. (The rumour is, both should get theatrical releases in the UK by the end of 2004.) So, I've now got to attempt the intellectual exercise of trying to write about Infernal Affairs 2 and 3 without spoiling the first one for those of you who haven't seen it yet. Still, even the most spoilerphobic of you (yes, I'm looking at you, dear) would have to accept that Infernal Affairs is a crime thriller, so it's not giving too much away to reveal that the number of major characters alive at the end is less than the number of major characters alive at the start.
Which, of course, makes it tricky if your film becomes a huge hit and there's pressure to follow it up, particularly in the hothouse environment of Hong Kong commercial cinema. The classic example is John Woo's A Better Tomorrow, where the supporting character played by Chow Yun-Fat became an overnight sensation... partly because of his heroic demise at the end of the film. Despite this, two sequels starring Chow followed: one of them was a prequel showing his life before the original film, while the other one is notorious for pivoting on the line "I never knew Mark had a twin brother..." Thankfully, the two sequels to Infernal Affairs are both partly prequels, thus avoiding such narrative clumsiness.
In fact, Infernal Affairs 2 is all prequel, focussing on three key periods in the early undercover work of bent cop Ming and bent villain Yan. When Edison Chen and Shawn Yue were cast in the first film as the young versions of Ming and Yan respectively, it seemed to indicate that a prequel was always on the cards - they're up-and-coming young stars, and were just a little too famous to be thrown away in a mere pre-credits flashback. So it's no surprise that Chen and Yue reprise those roles in IA2. It starts in 1991, with the inter-Triad battles that result from the assassination of a gang boss and his replacement by his ambitious son Ngai (Francis Ng) - who turns out to be a relative of Yan's, a key factor in Inspector Wong's choice of him as a mole. The remaining sections of the film cover the bloody climax of this war in 1995, and the aftermath in the runup to the 1997 handover. Along we way we meet Sam's wife Mary (Carina Lau), who has large-scale aspirations for her petty gangster husband, and Luk (Jun Hu), a cop who's following Wong's plans with some scepticism.
It's a lesser, more conventional film than the first one. The look isn't as striking, the violence is more upfront, the psychological complexity is replaced by complexity of plot. Everyone in the film is deceiving at least one other person, but nobody seems to be particularly tormented by it - presumably that only happens when you've been doing it for ten years or so. However, for all these themes of deception and betrayal, Ming and Yan aren't really the focus of IA2 at all. Which is fair enough: Chen and Yue are passable actors, but could never hope to match their predecessors.
IA2 actually works best as a showcase for the two father figures of Sam and Wong, who deservedly get top billing. Anthony Wong has a terrific monologue at the start about his early days as a cop: at one point he laments "evil prevails, only the good die young," and it literally sounds like poetry. Played out against the relentless ticking of an interrogation room clock, it sets up the theme of time that's a feature of this film (and a large amount of pre-1997 Hong Kong cinema, when the feeling was that time was running out). Eric Tsang is the real star here, though. In IA1 he never quite shook off the funny fat man persona that he brought on from earlier films: here he seriously lets rip, resulting in moments of genuine tragic force by the end. If IA1 is Tony Leung's film, IA2 is Eric Tsang's...
Ksitigarbha Sutra: 'People of the like shall be cast into the Avici Hell, and will continue to suffer from kalpa to kalpa with no means of escape.'
...and Infernal Affairs 3 is Andy Lau's. It takes Godfather Part II as its template, flitting between events just before the first film and just after it: again, allowing them to resurrect previously departed characters in flashback. For the most part, it concentrates on the aftermath of the events of the first film. Right at the start, we were told that Ming wasn't the only Triad mole that Sam had smuggled into the police force: others have been in place for as long as him. Suspicions fall on ambitious hotshot Wing (Leon Lai), for two reasons. Firstly, he's been seen in the company of Chinese drug lord Shen (Daoming Chen): secondly, other suspected moles in the force seem to be mysteriously dying around him. This triggers off an investigation which takes us back to a year or so before the original movie, as we discover Shen's links to Sam, Ming and Yan. Thus every major character from the trilogy gets to come back for this finale.
With the whole trilogy completed, it's easier to see the patterns. From the original plan to make a HK crime movie that would play internationally, the sequels have become more and more specific to their country of origin, what with references to 1997 and the rivalry between HK and the mainland. Again, the drift throughout the series is towards less complex characters and more convoluted plot. And there's an increasingly conventional feel overall - to the extent that IA3 even includes some goofy Canto-comedy interludes, in the flashbacks to Yan's flirty sessions with his shrink Dr Lee (Kelly Chen).
The exception to the plot-over-character focus is Ming. You almost feel that Andy Lau complained to the writers "hey, Tony got to crack up in the first film, it's my turn now." And sure enough, the ice-cool facade that his character maintained almost flawlessly in IA1 comes apart gloriously here. While a lot of the early part of the movie is a bit blah, the final forty minutes manages to match the quality of the original as Ming proceeds to lose it big time, aided by some beautifully imagined subjective sequences. (Hopefully you're noticing here that I'm not saying whether this happens in the flashbacks or the present day sections.)
It's not as essential as the first film was, by any means, but it's worth seeing for those final forty minutes. And given that the series has developed a reputation for the quality of its narrative surprises, the last one of those surprises doesn't disappoint. It makes for a satisfying conclusion to a trilogy that might give the Hong Kong film industry the boot in the pants it's needed for some time now. With an internationally successful franchise under its belt, I'd like to think that the rest of the industry will realise it needs to raise its game to these levels, to get back to the glory days that Rick Baker used to celebrate. Hopefully 2004 will be the year when that happens. Being a Monkey, and all.
Infernal Affairs' [dead link] official Hong Kong site is probably the best place to start if you want more details about all three films. But there's also a UK site [dead link] with some interesting bits and pieces buried in among the Flash silliness: and as the series was such a big hit across Asia, you can check out the Japanese site as well.
YesAsia.com is an excellent shop based in Hong Kong that sells videos, CDs and DVDs from all over Asia. And that's not all: their epic range of Infernal Affairs merchandise includes not just the three films, but also the soundtrack and even some Q-Brick model figures. (By the way, though the DVDs are listed on the site - and even on their sleeves - as being Region 3, this is a fib: they're all Region 0, and so should work anywhere in the world. Which is handy.)
andylau.com and tonyleung.org [dead link, try here now]: I'm guessing the first one is official (judging from the huge amount of members-only content and adverts), and the second one isn't. I prefer the second. [Possibly no longer true.] How about you?
LoopDiLoop [dead link] doesn't really have a connection to Infernal Affairs, other than its review of the film [dead link]. But I'm giving fmk a link here because he read an early version of this piece, and he helpfully pointed out a couple of paragraphs where I'd got the protagonists' names mixed up, thus stopping me from looking like a complete tit.
The 23rd Hong Kong Film Awards take place on April 4th, 2004. Last year, Infernal Affairs picked up 16 nominations and walked off with seven awards, including Best Picture. This year, both IA2 and IA3 are battling it out for the honours: in many categories, they're even competing against each other. Keep an eye on the official site to see who wins.
The Sutra of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha's Fundamental Vows may give you some insights into the Buddhist theory that runs through the Infernal Affairs trilogy (notably in the epigraphs for each film, which I've quoted at various points here). Chapter 3, in particular, helped me spot the spelling mistakes in the subtitles for IA3. "Avinci Hell" my arse.