“What thousands must die, so that Caesar may become great.”
When Hong Kong released Infernal Affairs in 2002, it pretty much revived the Asian gangster genre and proved the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s Best Director Academy Award winner, The Departed. I saw The Departed before I watched Infernal Affairs and, now seeing it, must say I prefer Scorsese’s Boston noir re-envisioning of the film more than the original. I realize this goes against the hardcore fans and critics of the film, but it doesn’t take anything away from the hardboiled crime sensation directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak created.
The movie is a study in moral ambiguity and mirrored duality. Chan (Tony Leung) and Lau (Andy Lau, not the director), are set up as rival moles, Chan in the Triads (Hong Kong’s mob) and Lau in the police force. Chan’s staged expulsion from the police academy set up his infiltration in to the triad crime organization run by local mob boss Hon Sam (Eric Tsang); and Lau, along with handful of other young men, infiltrate the police academy and pass into service as Hong Kong law officers. A number of years go by and Lau has climbed the ranks to a trusted Senior Inspector and Chan serves as one of Hon Sam’s trusted lieutenants in the criminal underworld.
Both moles are beginning to crack under the pressure of maintaining a secret dual existence, especially Chan who is having a difficult time with the acts of criminal violence he is increasingly asked to commit. Lau is suffering from pangs of guilt as he gains the respect of his fellow officers and genuinely enjoys his police work, even as he is forced to betray the force right under their noses. When the two moles discover each other’s existence, they are tasked with uncovering each other’s identity. The cat and mouse games escalate until the ultimate confrontation.
The movie moves at such a fast pace viewers can be forgiven if they grow confused and have to re-watch parts. I feel this is where The Departed is superior. He takes the time to establish the characters and lets the story build its own momentum, where as Infernal Affairs just keeps the story running at a breakneck tempo. Oddly enough, for all the intense pacing, I found the action and violence toned down in Infernal Affairs. The emotional scenes suffer from heavyhanded musical scoring so prevalent in Hong Kong cinema. The cheesy female vocals singing sad ballads in Cantonese simply pull you out of the moment and neutralize the pathos. The rest of the score is excellent and punctuates the tension brilliantly.
The story and acting is wonderfully nuanced and deeply effective. This is a unique story of duality and spiritual redemption. In fact, it is the spiritual side that really sets this film apart from the remake. The principles of Buddhism interweave themselves more seamlessly than the religious pageantry of Catholicism. I much prefer the downbeat complete closure ending of The Departed to the open ending (segueing into a trilogy) of Infernal Affairs. I understand that the original is just that and not a remake, but sometimes master directors like Scorsese can polish a story and make it stand on its own.
Infernal Affairs is presented on Blu-ray with a MPEG-4 AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.34:1 running an average of 18 Mbps. I found the transfer to be overly digitally scrubbed, suffering from DNR halos and an amazing amount of noise. In spite of strong color and fair contrasting, the softness of the film detracts from the overall transfer bringing into question the integrity of the source elements. The final product is wildly uneven. Some exterior scenes pop with sharpness and clarity only to be betrayed by flat interior shots and unstable blacks.
Infernal Affairs boasts two lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio options, one in the original Cantonese and the other a completely useless English dub. The mixing of the English dub is horrible, loud and ugly. The acting alone in English ruins the film. The Cantonese version is full-bodied with great immersive surround and aggressive LFE, not to mention the acting is brilliant. The dialog is well balanced with the SFX/soundtrack and perfectly captured.
- The Making of Infernal Affairs (15:21; SD) standard EPK featuring interviews with cast and crew interspersed with film clips.
- Confidential File: Behind the Scenes Look at Infernal Affairs (6:04; SD) a short featurette showcasing camcorder caught scenes being shot.
- Alternate Ending (2:54; SD) a sad and somewhat lame ending bringing quick justice to Lau. The Departed’s ending is still the best.
- International Trailer (2:21; SD)
- Original Chinese Trailer (1:47; HD)
I enjoyed watching this and comparing it to Scorsese’s remake, but I must say I wasn’t that blown away by the original. I found some of the intensity of the story muted by clichés of Asian entertainment. The saddest scenes are effectively destroyed by poor scoring and pandering to Asian pop culture. I hoped for a more brutal film, along the lines of early John Woo, but found it too restrained for my tastes. Antagonist Hon Sam just didn’t compare to Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello. If you are a fan of Asian crime cinema you will enjoy this, but there are better examples of the medium, like Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow.
“Remember this, if you see someone doing something but at the same time watching you… then he is a cop.”