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Non-Review Review: Infernal Affairs

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir. Today’s theme is “foreign noir” – a look at some of the neo-noir films from outside America.

In case you are unfamiliar with the Hong Kong classic, Infernal Affairs is perhaps most recognisable to Western audiences as the film which inspired Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. The film finally won Scorsese a long overdue Oscar, but the raw materials he found himself working with certainly contributed in some manner. The movie succeeds by taking a wonderfully original plot that still fits within the themes of the best crime stories, and telling it in a wonderfully engaging manner.

Go to Hell...

The story, in case you’ve never seen Scorsese’s retitled remake, follows two undercover operatives. One is a gangster working his way up the police hierarchy and answering to the local Triad boss. The other is a cop who has been recruited to work his way deep inside the local organised crime gangs and reporting directly to the chief investigator. When a drug bust goes wrong, both sides realise that they’re being played, and both characters find themselves in the ironic position of hunting for the mole on two fronts – they are assigned by their two bosses to find the moles on both sides of the fence.

It’s a clever little concept right there, and it’s one which plays off the idea that has always been at the centre of film noir: what is the distinction between good and evil? Do we judge men by the actions they do? Is Chan, the police officer posing as a gang member, a good person even if he’s forced to do bad things? How long can we pretend to be one thing before we actually start changing? Chan, an undercover cop, finds himself assigned a psychiatrist because he’s been arrested repeatedly for acting out – is it due to frustration with being trapped, or has spent so long acting as a thug that he’s starting to become one? He earnestly asks his therapist, “Do you think I’m a good guy or a bad guy?”

Badge of honour?

His chief asks him at one point, “You forgotten you’re a cop?” It’s possible that he’s been under so long (he mentions several three-year cycles) that he’s lost perspective and can’t tell which way is up. One of the great recurring themes in these sorts of stories is how cops and criminals are generally more alike than they’d admit. It’s Chan’s abilities as a keen police officer which make him the most trustworthy and efficient mobster. Lau, the mole in police headquarters, discovers that his own duplicitous nature has helped him advance through police bureaucracy faster than most. Both men survive in one world using skills they learnt in another.

Although it was Martin Scorsese who would adapt the film for American audiences, it’s remarkable how Andy Lau’s production feels like a Michael Mann film. Shot in the beautiful Hong Kong, everything has a smooth grey sheen to it which reminds me of most of Mann’s work in Los Angeles, especially with the constant rooftop meetings and use of reflective windows on skyscrapers. It isn’t rough and cluttered like Boston – Hong Kong is sophisticated and stylish, but that means that the corruption is all the more shocking for being so skilfully hidden.

Hot shot police inspector...

I like both this film and Scorsese’s iteration of the tale. I am hesitant to pick a favourite, as they both have very different styles. The adaptation itself is remarkably faithful – certain scenes are lifted pretty much intact (a discussion about how you spot an undercover cop, the writing on an envelope) – but there are clear differences. The Hong Kong original is a much more streamlined film. It comes in significantly shorter, but it’s also a lot more clearly structured and laid out – there’s almost a rigid delineation between the cops and mobsters. Scorsese’s film is a lot more organic and fluid, with a lot more focus of character development rather than plot. For example, we get to see the gangster’s charm as he works in the police force (while here we join him after he’s already made it through a decent portion of his career).

The production is polished and stylish. Director Lau knows best how to get his action scenes to work – especially that scene where Lau “takes care of business”, without spoiling anything. The humour in the film translates well, and the images are clean and crisp. The music is a little bit too eighties for my taste, but it does work well at certain points during the film. I think Lau deserves credit as a director for making sure that the audience is never lost in this complicated game of double-cross played between the cops and the criminals.

Up on the roof...

Infernal Affairs is a great little film, and one that any neo-noir fan owes it to themselves to catch. It even comes with a dub in case you don’t feel like reading subtitles (though I find a dub quite disconcerting). It’s not a case that one can write off the film as seen because they’ve already watched Scorsese’s version – to do that would be grossly unfair on the original. Give it a go. Go on.

If you enjoyed this post, please make a donation to the blogathon if you can. All funds go to help restore the classic The Sound of Fury, a very worthwhile cause and a wonderful contribution to make to the arts. Click the image below to donate.

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2 Responses

  1. Just a point of clarification that might be needed – the codirector, working with cowriter Alan Mak, is Andrew Lau, also known as Andrew Lau Wai-Keung. The actor is known as Andy Lau, birth name Lau Fok Wing. They are two different people. Sorry to seem nitpicking, but those less familiar with Hong Kong cinema might assume that the star was also served as director. On a related note, it took me a little while of serious film watching to realize that there are two different actors named Tony Leung.

    • I agree. I actually made the same mistake myself. I assumed he was acting and directing under different variations of the same name like “Beat” takeshi is prone to, from time to time.

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