Yan (Tony Leung) is an undercover cop in the triads, recruited before he graduated from the police academy. A decade of hard work has planted him deep in the largest triad in Hong Kong. Ming (Andy Lau) is a mole in the police force, assigned by his triad boss to become a cop when he was barely eighteen. With the exclusive intelligence on his triad rivals, Ming has been promoted swiftly to head the Criminal Intelligence Bureau. Both men are feeling increasingly trapped in the inferno between good and evil: they are merely shadows with no identities.
But on one fateful evening, all means point to an end. Ming is assigned to a police operation to bust none other than his own triad boss, while the police intelligence originates from their mole Yan, who happens to be the boss' most trusted henchman. As the operation unfolds, both sides realise there is a mole against themselves. To make things even worse, Ming is transferred to Internal Affairs and his first mission is to ferret out that mole in the police force...
In quite a few of the online forums I use that focus mainly on Asian DVDs, there have been many discussion topics on the state of Hong Kong cinema. Many believed that it is dead by comparison to its hey day in the 1980s when Jackie Chan et al ruled the roost. While martial arts films are certainly no longer of the same standard that they once were, and for a time all the big films seemed to be romantic feel-good comedies, things didn't look too great. For me, though, things have been not so bad in recent years. There was the suspense horror phase which brought films like Inner Senses, Visible Secret and The Eye, but out of no where (as far as I am concerned) came Infernal Affairs, a intelligent and well worked through triad/cop film, which was heavily story based.
I decided to write this review as the film recently played as part of the Cardiff Screen Festival, and seeing it on the big screen made me appreciate it all the more. It is the best way to see any film, and I only hope there are more showings like it in cinemas around the country. Anyway, onto the film. One of the film's directors, Andrew Lau, is a very polar director. He helmed the Young and Dangerous series, films that are in the triad/cop genre, but then he is also known, probably not quite as positively, for his CG fantasy films, which have become more and more over the top with the CG as the films went on. Watch all these films and it is clear that it is in story based films, pretty much in the triad genre, that he shines through. Along side him in the directorial helm is Alan Mak, a person who I admittedly know little about, but he has the credit of directing the notable triad/action flick A War Named Desire. In my opinion Infernal Affairs outshines all Andrew Lau's previous work, so having these two directors' heads together is clearly a great combination.
One of the more special aspects of Infernal Affairs is the cast list. Not only is it an A list cast, it is pretty much the top of the A list, the A+ people as far as status goes. You've got Tony Leung Chiu Wai, possibly one of the best actors in the world (that I know of), and Andy Lau, another one of the better actors in Hong Kong, in the leading roles. This film was the first pairing these two had done (that I am aware of) in about the last ten years. In the secondary cast you have Anthony Wong, someone who in my view pretty much always gives a very good performance (save Erotic Ghost Story II!) but who's choice of film sometimes leaves a little to be desired. Also in the secondary cast is Eric Tsang. For me Eric Tsang is a very either you love him or hate him actor. Which one of those you choose very much depends on the film though. In comedies I usually can't stand him, as his squeaky voice annoys me and his character is always meant to be annoying. In serious roles, however, he shows that he can be a very good actor delivering emotion and belief far better than you could have ever imagined if you only saw his comedy roles. Infernal Affairs is no exception to this.
In what are essentially cameo roles, due to the length of screen time, there are also big name stars. Sammi Cheng appears as Andy Lau's wife, Kelly Chen as a psychiatrist, and Edison Chen and Shaun Yue are the younger versions of Andy Lau and Tony Leung respectively. With the sequels being released soon, I'll guess that each of these minor roles will get more screen time in those films, particularly Edison Chen and Shawn Yue.
The basic story to Infernal Affairs I don't think is greatly original, as it is not a concept that has been alien to films around the world for years. However, it being handled so intelligently and being produced to such a high standrad is what makes Infernal Affairs stand out from the crowd. I'm not going to give much more than the basics away from the plot as I don't want to give away anything that will ruin any of the twists that the main plot takes. Infernal Affairs is about Chan Wing Yan (Tony Leung/Shawn Yue), an outstanding police cadette who is recruited to be an undercover agent in the triads. In his cadette class is Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau/Edison Chen), a member of one of the bigger triads who is chosen by his boss Hon Sam (Eric Tsang) to be an undercover triad in the police force. Over time, both rise in their respective ranks, until the inevitable time when the two are both set the task of finding out who the mole in the other organisation is, before their own identity is exposed.
There aren't really any action scenes in the film at all. There is a very brief skirmish at one point, but not enough to really be thought of as a big action scene. The entire film is story and character driven. As has been shown in many films before, if the story is not handled well, or the characters are not believable and the acting is poor, the film simply won't work. No worries here then! Everything in Infernal Affairs excels in these categories. The A list cast live up to their reputations and then some. Tony Leung it would appear can do no wrong as far as his acting goes. Few people are able to portray their emotions and feelings through looks, facial expressions and their eyes as well as this man can. The dilemma that his character goes through is felt beyond the screen, the viewer is practically right up there with him in his feelings.
Giving another stellar performance is Andy Lau. As a police officer with loyalties leaning towards the triads, he also has a major dilemma to go through. As his character has more of a settled life, the viewer can see more into his life and the roots of his dilemma. As a cop, Andy Lau's character has no reason to hide, whereas as a triad Tony Leung's character is much more in the shadows and out of the public eye, making his struggle more internal. Andy Lau's is shared with his fiancee, which perhaps weakens the emotion that is being built up in the character. Nonetheless, Lau's performance is excellent, convincingly showing a good and evil side where needed.
As I stated earlier, Eric Tsang's performance in Infernal Affairs is very good. I think this is the first film I've seen where he has been a bad guy, and in that alone it was quite a change. I can honestly say, though, that he was excellent in his role. How someone who can be so bloody annoying in some films can pull a role like this of so convincingly is beyond me. He is not a squeaky little wimp that is picked on by others, it is very clear by his facial expressions and his demeanour why he was the boss. Maybe it was the bleached/grey hair which helped, I don't know, but I thought he was utterly convincing as a triad boss, and this is without a doubt the best role I've ever seen him in.
Anthony Wong was unable to compete with the quality of acting from his opposite, Eric Tsang, but nevertheless he tries and comes pretty close. Being a police superintendent, his actions are clearly limited by law and he has to set a good example to his subordinates, so there is a limit to what he is able to do. He does manage to come across as being cunning and intelligent, and relentless in his efforts to bring down Hon Sam. All in all, I really can't put much fault on any of the cast.
The story is engaging and, on the whole, well thought through and the acting is of a exceedingly high standard, but unfortunately the film is not perfect. There is one continuity thing which kind of got to me as being slightly unbelievable. At the start of the film, once each of the undercovers has been placed in their respective organisation, we see highlights of their careers. Lau Kin Ming (Edison Chen at this point) is seen to perform well, and rises through the ranks, and Chan Wing Yan is shown to be getting in a bit of trouble, being in fights and being arrested. This is what got to me, in one of those scenes he is arrested and Lau Kin Ming is one of the officers arresting him. So the two of them had met. Fast forward some more years, and you see Edison Chen is Andy Lau, and Shawn Yue is Tony Leung. The first scene of this part of the film has Lau Kin Ming go into a stereo shop where Chan Wing Yan appears to be working. There isn't even the slightest bit of recognition between the two of them. Given the observational powers that Chan Wing Yan was shown to have, and the fact that Lau Kin Ming is cleary a very good and succesful police officer, surely there should have been a slight recollection of seeing each other before, even if they couldn't remember where from. But no, they are essentially complete strangers.
There is also a glimpse into Chan Wing Yan's life that had very little explanation, and even less expansion in the story. I'll assume it will be covered in the sequels somewhere, but while making a slightly interesting glimpse to a story, it does seem a little out of place without anything else going with it. Something else slightly unbelievable is the scene in the parking lot with Hon Sam trying to escape the police. He manages to get away a bit, but stops for reasons I won't go into. Given that the police were after him, and he was on foot, after he stops not a single cop is in sight for the next minute or so. Weren't they chasing him? Did they get lost running in an apparent straight line? There is a possible explanation to this, which again I won't mention at risk of giving spoilers to that part of the film, but I don't buy it at all. To me it is just a little too unbelievable.
Those, however, are the few criticisms that I can think of at this point in time towards Infernal Affairs. As you can tell, I quite like this film! If you like intelligent and twisting police cat'n'mouse type films, then I don't hesitate to recommend Infernal Affairs. The acting is superb and the story is engaging, and it is simply a very good film. Part 2 of the trilogy is released on DVD on the 3rd or 10th December. I will be buying that, and hoping that it lives up to this one. I doubt it, but as long as it doesn't do a Matrix and completely ruin the franchise, then hopefully I'll be happy. In the mean time, I strongly suggest you buy this film if you haven't done so already!