Infernal Affairs: Powerful Film Noir, Inspiration for Scorsese’s Oscar Winner The Departed

What made Hong Kong crime actioners so exhilarating in the 1980s and early 1990s, at the height of auteur John Woo, were their urban romanticism, existential dilemmas, hard-boiled melodrama, and cool visual style. Many of them revolved around an existential Triad gangster, who was elevated to tragic-hero and chivalrous avenger, in short a mythic figure not unlike the gunslingers in American Westerns.

“Infernal Affairs,” which was made in Hong Kong in 2002, but barely seen in the U.S. (as late as 2005) belongs to the wave of films that John Woo made popular in the West via film festivals like Toronto.

This gritty police thriller, co-scripted by writer-director Alan Mak and Felix Chong, and co-directed with Andrew Lau (“Storm Riders,” “Young and Dangerous”) is like a summation film, bringing together all the themes, motifs, and visual elements of the sub-genre, which may explain its huge commercial success in Hong Kong, where it broke box-office records.

The handsome Tony Leung (Cannes Best Actor for Wong Kar-Wai “In the Mood for Love”) plays Yan, a veteran cop who has spent a decade undercover, infiltrating crime syndicates.

Yan is posited as a parallel figure to a Triad member, Ming (Andy Lau), who lives a counter life on the opposite side of the law. A young Triad planted into the police force in his teens by crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang), Ming has now been promoted to the rank of sergeant.

The two men come head-to-head during a failed drug bust when the cops and criminals realize a mole exists within their respective groups. What ensues from then on is a cat-and-mouse game with each man trying to track down his undercover counterpart before his own identity is publicly exposed.

What elevates the film above the generic foundations is its existential layer. Both men have grown weary with their personal lives, with living secretive and lonely existences in the gray area between good and evil. (A colleague of mine pointed out that the film’s Chinese title, “Mo-Gaan-Do,” refers to the lowest level of hell in Buddhism.) Indeed, Yan is tired of pretending to be an amoral gangster and wants his normal life back, while Ming yearns to become a real cop and shed his forced role as a Triad spy.

They pledge absolute obedience to their diabolical ringleader, a big-time, take-no-prisoners drug dealer called Sam. Lau enters the police force as a mole and rises in the ranks by simultaneously pleasing his police boss and keeping Sam one jump ahead of the anti-gang squad. An undercover cop, sent to join the gang after police training school, Yan is so good at what he does that he becomes Sam’s favorite.

Another parallel has the two men reporting secretly to their superiors. Ming reports to ruthless Triad crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang). Yan reports to Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong), who is the only man on the force who knows that Yan is a cop. Tensions escalate once both Sam and police superintendent Wong (Yan’s handler) realize that each has a traitor in the ranks.

The beginning of the film is a bit disorienting, due the story’s playing with our expectations (often negating them) and also rapid tempo of the opening sequences.

The female characters, played by Chinese pop princesses Sammi Cheng, Kelly Chen and Elva Hsiao, are the film’s only weakness. There’s no paucity of women, but they play narrowly conceive roles with all too brief screen time to leave any impact.

For example, cop-mole Lau has a fiancee, Mary (Sammi Cheng), who’s writing a novel with a protagonist who operates under many different guises. This subplot serves as a device for shaking Lau’s deeply ingrained habits of deception, shedding a new light on him.

Often the love interests that weigh on both men’s moral decisions come across as gratuitous and superficial. The romantic subplots don’t work nearly as well as the story of the two conflicted men. They should have been either more developed, or left out altogether.

The movie is expertly shot by co-director Lau and cinematographer Lai Yiu Fai, and also benefits from the “visual consultancy” of ace artist Chris Doyle, who reportedly helped calibrate the lighting and color; the sheen of the skyline contrasts spectacularly against the scum of its mildewy concrete.

Few cities, not even New York or Los Angeles, the capital of film noir, can match Hong Kong for its extreme paradox of urban decay and powerful material lure, and “Infernal Affairs” takes full advantage of the city’s look to reflect and comment on the corroding ethics of its characters.

Never to neglect style, in this picture, the cops and robbers wear expensive Italian suits, drive fast European cars, and drink coffee like a Miami vice squad.

Stylish and cool, mature and intelligent, “Infernal Affairs” is the kind of movie that American Michael Mann has made in his crime trilogy, “Heat,” “Collateral,” and “Miami Vice.” In this policier, there’s a scene in which a cop is brutally executed and lands on the roof of a car in front of his utterly startled colleagues, recalling a similar scene in Mann’s “Collateral,” which was made later.
Unlike those Hong Kong films that feature over-the-top action sequences with fireworks, here the action is more subtle and subdued in tone. The directors maintain a suspenseful aura of doubt around each of them, without resorting to narrative sleight-of-hand gambits or cheap gimmicks.
“Infernal Affairs” is a procedural policier that’s much more than that due to its characters’ moral dilemmas, mixed allegiances, and confused identities. Both have been undercover so long their allegiances and morals have become confused. The undercover cop has been a crook so long that he is more crook than cop. The gang member who has infiltrated the police department wants to continue being a cop and to leave his criminal past behind him.

“Internal Affairs is an emotionally gripping genre piece, done with taste, and boasting an uncompromising ending. Exploring the gray area between good and evil, right and wrong, the story emphasizes the degree to which criminals and cops are alike, and also that, at least to a certain extent, all people are both good and bad.

“Infernal Affairs” was sufficiently popular in Hong Kong to have spawned two successful sequels. Scorsese’s upcoming “The Departed” is loosely based on this picture, which is now transplanted to the Boston area and its Irish American cops.