China/HK Month: “Infernal Affairs” (2002)

In a little less than a week, I’ll be leaving for a tour of China, after which I’ll be visiting my in-laws in Hong Kong. I’ve been to the Chinese mainland only once before, but I have been to Hong Kong many times. In preparation for the trip (and in anticipation of difficulty posting while I am in China), I’ll be focusing this week on films from Chinese and Hong Kong cinema. For three weeks afterwards, I’ll be posting about China and Hong Kong when time and Internet access permit.

Since the Handover in 1997, collaboration between the mainland and Hong Kong (HK) film industries has significantly increased. Now, co-production is the rule rather than the exception, although there are still HK-only film projects. One of the latter is 2002’s “Infernal Affairs,” a crime drama/thriller helmed by HK directors Wai-Keung Lau and Alan Mak.

Andy Lau and Tony Leung star in INFERNAL AFFAIRS

Andy Lau and Tony Leung star in INFERNAL AFFAIRS

Written by Mak and Felix Chong, the film’s story centers on two of a group of young gang (triad) members who are sent undercover by their boss, Hon Sam (Eric Tsang), to infiltrate the police department. Sam is frustrated with having his drug deals spoiled by the police, so he sends these men, who have clean records, to enroll in the HK police academy. Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau) makes it through the training, but Chen Wing Yan (Tony Leung) washes out early. Apparently sent home, Chen has actually been assigned as an undercover cop. His mission is to infiltrate the triads and provide intelligence to his boss, SP Wong Chi Shing (Anthony Wong). Only SP Wong knows his identity; Lau does not know that Chen has switched sides. Through a failed drug deal with Thai smugglers, Boss Sam and SP Wong realize that each one has a mole in the other’s operation. Both sides try to uncover the double agent in their midst. Ironically, Lau receives a promotion to Internal Affairs and the task of finding Sam’s mole in the police department. Boss Sam hunts for the traitor in his gang; Chen volunteers to help him. However, both Lau and Chen focus instead on uncovering the spy on the other side. Through various twists and turns, Lau and Chen find themselves drawn inexorably towards a bloody confrontation from which only one can emerge as a survivor.

Boss Sam (Tsang) with a henchman and Chen (Leung)

Boss Sam (Tsang) with a henchman and Chen (Leung)

“Infernal Affairs” is the first in a three-film series that was widely popular in HK. According to Wikipedia, the title in Chinese (无间道) “means ‘The Unceasing Path,’ a reference to Avici, the lowest level of hell in Buddhism, where one endures suffering incessantly. The English title is a word play combining the law enforcement term ‘internal affairs’ with the adjective ‘infernal.'” Both Lau and Chen are, in effect, trapped in Avici by virtue of their roles as double agents. While actors Lau and Leung are both good, Leung gives the deeper and more emotional performance. Wong and Tsang also turn in memorable performances as the leaders of the two irreconcilable sides of the conflict between cops and gangsters. All four actors are among my favorites in HK cinema.

SP Wong (Wong) and his undercover agent Chen (Leung)

SP Wong (Wong) and his undercover agent Chen (Leung)

This is a movie that U.S. film fans should see. Currently available for streaming on Netflix (with English subtitles – it’s also available via Amazon Instant Video), “Infernal Affairs” is in the IMDB top 250 films. It also won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Tony Leung), Best Film Editing, and Best Original Film Song at the 2003 Hong Kong Film Awards, as well as eighteen awards in other competitions. Yes, Martin Scorsese remade it as Academy Award-winning “The Departed” (2006 – also in IMDB’s top 250, but ranked considerably higher). However, original and remake are significantly different, as they are set in and depend upon vastly dissimilar cultures for their cinematic success. As a result, they are almost like two unrelated movies — both of which movie lovers should see.