Robin’s Underrated Gems: Infernal Affairs (2002)

On this week’s Shouts From the Back Row podcast about Martin Scorsese, we spend a lot of time gushing about The Departed, so I thought it only appropriate that I pay tribute to the Hong Kong film that it was based on. Infernal Affairs is one of the most successful films in the history of Hong Kong, which was picked up by Miramax for a brief theatrical release in 2004, but has never really gotten its just due from American audiences. When The Departed won “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards, the announcer made an infamous mistake when he stated The Departed was based on a Japanese film, which was kind of an indication that Infernal Affairs was being treated as a complete afterthought. Now, I’ll clarify right away that I still do think that The Departed is a superior movie and in my epic column about remakes, I listed it as my third-favourite remake of all time. However, that’s hardly a knock against Infernal Affairs as I still consider it to be an excellent film. If you ever go to the IMDb message boards for Infernal Affairs or The Departed, you’ll find some pretty nasty arguments between fans of both films who will argue about how superior their favourite version is and claim that the other version is a complete travesty. When I see that, I must ask the obvious question: what’s so wrong with loving both films?

Countless films have been made about cops who go deep undercover as a mole within a criminal organization and struggle with having to adapt to their new lifestyle, but Infernal Affairs added the ingenious twist of having a criminal go deep undercover as mole within the police department at the same time, and having the two separate characters try to uncover each other’s identity. When I originally saw Infernal Affairs, I thought the idea was so clever that I cynically believed that it was only a matter of time before the inevitable Hollywood remake. It was only after I discovered that the remake would be directed by Martin Scorsese that I thought things might actually turn out alright. The Departed got a lot of buzz when it assembles a renowned cast of A-list actors that included the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg. Well, Infernal Affairs managed to do the exact same thing when it assembles the Hong Kong equivalent of an A-list cast, as Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang were among the biggest stars in the region at the time. The two main characters are Yan (Tony Leung) and Lau (Andy Lau) who are both simultaneously attending a police academy at the beginning of the film. Yan is recruited by police Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong) to go deep cover as a mole in an organization run by a Triad boss named Sam (Eric Tsang) and Wong goes through the motions of having Yan expelled from the academy to add credence to his cover story. It’s simultaneously revealed that Lau is actually an undercover Triad member who’s becoming a mole in the police department in order to feed intelligence to Sam. One interesting device that The Departed did not use was having younger actors play Yan and Lau during the prologue at the academy, so that when Tony Leung and Andy Lau take over the roles, it gives off the impression that an awful lot of time has passed and Yan and Lau have become so immersed in their new lives that they’ve lost all sense of their true identities.

Anyway, while Infernal Affairs is a cop thriller at heart, it’s also an interesting story about identity, loyalty and the inner conflict between good and evil. Yan winds up having to spend ten years undercover as a criminal and is forced to keep doing bad things for so long that he forgets he is supposed to be the good guy. In contrast, Lau becomes so adept at his job as a police officer that he begins to wish that he could just forget about his criminal side and live the rest of his life as a law-abiding hero. Of course, both men have earned so much trust within their inner circles that when their respective bosses find out there is a mole within their organization, they are both given the responsibility of finding out who it is. This leads to a lot of suspenseful and cleverly staged scenes where Yan and Lau are technically looking for each other while trying to avoid being seen at the same time. One terrifically constructed sequence involves a sting operation where the police try to bust Sam and his gang during the midst of a major cocaine deal while Yan and Lau are both simultaneously trying to leak information to the other side. While the characters secretly communicated via text messaging in The Departed, Infernal Affairs was made when texting was still in its infancy, so they wind up feeding each other information through Morse code! One of the most effective scenes in the film has to be when Yan and Lau finally have a chance to directly speak with each other over a cell phone, but neither of them wants to give himself away by speaking first.

Now, even though Infernal Affairs is a brilliantly made and wonderfully acted little cop thriller, I think I should go over the reasons why I think The Departed is a bit better. While Infernal Affairs originally came up with the ingeniously clever premise, The Departed took the idea and added a lot of depth and epic scope to it. While Infernal Affairs tells its story very well, it’s almost a full hour shorter than The Departed, coming in at a lean 101 minutes, and you do wish you could spend a bit more time with these characters. The Departed also gets a lot of mileage out of its Boston setting and its hilariously colourful and profane dialogue. While Infernal Affairs is a mostly serious film, The Departed garners a lot of humour with the addition a brand-new character, Sergeant Dignam, and Mark Wahlberg’s performance in the role wound up being one of the most popular elements of the remake. In Infernal Affairs, both Yan and Lau are involved with separate women, as Yan is forced to see a female therapist that he becomes attracted to, while Lau has a wife of his own who knows nothing about his criminal past. In The Departed, both women are condensed into Vera Farmiga’s character, who is married to Matt Damon while acting as a shrink to Leonard DiCaprio at the same time. This was probably a wise move as neither of the female characters in Infernal Affairs are developed as well as they could be, though the film does feature one wonderful scene where Yan encounters an ex-girlfriend who has a young daughter. When Yan asks how old the girl is, his ex-girlfriend answers five, but after Yan leaves, the daughter says: “But, Mommy, I’m six”. That moment completely exemplifies how much Yan’s undercover work has ruined his chance for a normal life. Anyway, the following clip presents some interesting side-by-side comparisons between scenes in Infernal Affairs and The Departed.

After the massive success of Infernal Affairs in Hong Kong, the decision was made to turn the story into a trilogy. Infernal Affairs II would function as prequel while Infernal Affairs III would function as both a prequel and a sequel, so they were both filmed back-to-back and released only three months apart the following year. They’re both decent enough films, but you get the sense that they made a trilogy just for the sake of making a trilogy instead of adding anything particularly special to the overall story. However, despite the lukewarm response to its two follow-ups, Infernal Affairs still remains one of the most popular and acclaimed films in the history of Hong Kong cinema and is credited with doing a lot to help resurrect what was a somewhat stale and declining industry at the time the film was made. I would have thought that the success of The Departed would do a lot to help increase North American exposure for Infernal Affairs, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Since the two films have different titles, it’s possible that many people don’t even know that The Departed is a remake. While I may complain endlessly about the non-stop plethora of remakes in Hollywood these days, I am willing to embrace a remake that improves upon the original… but I also don’t want to give off the impression that the original version is not a great film in its own right. Infernal Affairs is a tremendously entertaining crime thriller that contains a lot excitement and suspense, but it is also layered with great deal of emotional complexity and subtle characterizations, and you really can’t ask for much more from a film than that.

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