Hot on the heels of the success of the Martin Scorsese film The Departed, I figured why not take a look back at the Hong Kong crime film that inspired it. Better yet, why not explore the trilogy that is the Infernal Affairs crime films, and how they hold up now. And I’ll try to minimize on the redundant stuff.
Written and directed by Siu Fai Mak, the first Infernal Affairs film is where The Departed finds its roots, as Yan (Tony Leung, Hero) is the Leona…do DiCaprio equivalent, while Lau (Andy Lau, House of Flying Daggers) is the Matt Damon equivalent. You might even recognize Anthony Wong from Black Mask as the Martin Sheen version, and Eric Tsang (Double Dragon) plays a shorter, toned down version of the gangster that Jack Nicholson enhabits.
The main differences between this film and the current US hit written by William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) is that some of the intricacies are flushed out more in the American version, while they’re left to the imagination in the Hong Kong version, as the film focuses more on the action and the chase than the duality of the main characters. The Hong Kong version is a of tenser pace than the American one (largely because it’s almost an hour shorter), and the crime boss Sam, while bold in this film, is clearly no match for some of the over the top antics Nicholson employs. On its own, it’s a very tense, action packed film, and The Departed does it some justice.
Then things break off a little bit, as Mak decided to do a followup to the film that served more as a prequel to the first one. And the prequel is the exception to the rule about a second film sucking worse than the first one, because you enjoy watching the exposition and depth behind the characters in this film, even though you know how most will meet their maker. The focus is less on Yan and Lau, for the reasons that they would have been virtual kids during this time, and focuses more on the relationship between Sam (Tsang) and Inspector Wong (Wong), as there’s a bit of a friendly working relationship among them while they try to topple a gangster named Wing-Hau Ngai (Francis Ng, Vampire Hunter D), who has taken over the family business following the death of his father. The calm, cool and collected Hau works among his brothers and sisters, who are aware of his work but stay out of it.
That’s not to say than Yan and Lau are completed exorcised from the film, each comes into their own in the organizations they’ve infiltrated, but for different reasons. And among the other surprising things in this prequel, is that Sam is married to Mary (Carina Lau, 2046), whom Lau is rather fond of as well. There’s a slight change in what people see once the murderer of Hau’s father is revealed, as it sets a course where some people are resigned to die while others make choices that seal their fates before they know it. Set against the backdrop of the Hong Kong handover in 1997 with an underlying theme of “new beginnings”, the main characters in the Infernal Affairs films have a completely different perspective shone on them that may be better than what we’re first used to seeing.
The final part of the trilogy wraps up the whole bloody affair, as ten months after Yan is killed, Lau becomes very guilt-ridden about what he’s done and the life he’s led, and he encounters an inspector named Yeung (Leon Lai, Moonlight in Tokyo) whom Lau suspects is another of Sam’s moles that is placed in the department, and Lau wants to bring him to justice. And during the film, we also discover that Lau’s wife has left him, and Lau encounters Mary (Sammi Cheng) who was Yan’s psychiatrist in the first film, and develops a friendship with her, along with a tendency to open up about his life.
It’s clear what the film intends to do, aside from jumping around and presenting a very nonlinear timeline, is to effectively portray how haunted Lau is about what he’s done, and there are more than a couple shots that present the duality of each character, and blurring the line between right and wrong quite well. After a handful of screen time in Part I, Mary gets more of a chance to reveal her emotional attachment to Yan, and Cheng is quite striking to look at. What ties things into Lau is his attachment or crush to Sam’s then-wife Mary, who was killed in an “automobile accident”. There’s a little bit of dramatic over-indulgence in parts of the film, but it ties things up in a neat and tidy package.
Now, it’s quite easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and talk about the pros and cons of the trilogy, but as a whole, the trilogy was quite engrossing to follow, and the performances of the two main characters are excellent. It’s kind of sad that the filmmakers almost had to shoot their wad in the first film in order to wow everyone, because it did hamper the storytelling to some extent (the Sam and Wong characters were almost exclusive to the second film so as to provide even more character exposition for them, as they only survive in flashbacks in the third film). Overall though, Infernal Affairs is the modern action trilogy that other non-adapted films should try to pattern themselves after.
All three Infernal Affairs films come with 2.35:1 anamorphic transfers. The pictures are of excellent quality, even though most of the film occurs in darker environments. I wasn’t able (read: lazy) to hook up an HDMI cable to my upconverting DVD player, but the component video at 480p works for me. Of the three films, the second one probably employs the most color of them all, but there’s a lot of blacks and greys in the film and all are reproduced with little complaint.
All three films come with DTS-ES soundtracks. Surprisingly, the film is mostly quiet, but during some of the more action packed scenes, the soundtrack shows off. The songs in the movies sound clear, and bullets and explosions have subwoofer quality put behind them as well, as the surrounds have a chance to stretch their legs, particularly in the second film, where there’s just more action and activity than the first one. And there’s some crystal-clear sounding music to accompany some of the more emotional scenes in the film, and they come out sounding great. The third one is a little bit muted in terms of score, but there’s more bass/subwoofer activity because of the gunshots and explosions.
Sometimes when you reach for the stars, you get a little bit of sunburn, so while the extras appear to be OK, they are without English subtitles. And since I don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese, I’m left wanting a bit, since there are commentaries on all three films. Each film has a separate disc devoted to special features, the first film has a text section for the story, along with some of the characters. From there, there’s a music video, along with a brief making-of look at the film, and some trailers to boot. Some cast filmographies follow, along with a stills gallery. There’s also some interview footage and a storyboard to film comparison for some of the key scenes, along with approximately 10 minutes of deleted scenes. For the second film, there are similar looks at the story and the cast and characters, along with some more stills galleries and trailers, and a quick making of look at part II. On the third film, there are more videos, more stills galleries and trailers, and a making of look at the film.
Like all trilogies set on a grand scale, the three Infernal Affairs films could closely be associated with the Godfather set of films, with characters created on a grand scale over a long period of time, with a minimal amount of extraneous storytelling in each film. Each part is tense and tightly paced, each performance is excellent, and the stories are full of twists and turns than you are surprised to see transpire. If you like The Departed, then Infernal Affairs is one worth checking out. And if you’ve got a region-free DVD, then this is one to add in your library.
Special Features List
- Making of Featurettes
- Music Videos
- Deleted Scenes