What would you do if you had to wear the mask of your enemy for 10 years?
Andy Lau and Tony Leung are going to answer that for us in the 2002 Hong Kong movie classic, Infernal Affairs, the subject of this month’s #TBT Review!
- Andy Lau as Lau Kin Ming
- Tony Leung as Chan Wing Yan
- Anthony Wong as Wong Chi Shing
- Eric Tsang as Hon Sum
- Chapman To as “Crazy” Keung
- Gordon Lam as Big B
- Kelly Chen as Lee Sum Yi
- Sammi Cheng as Mary
- Hong Kong
- Chinese title: Mo Gaan Dou (Cantonese)
- Directors: Andrew Lau & Alan Mak
- Original release date: Dec 12, 2002
- American release: 2004
10 years ago, triad boss, Hon Sum, sends one of his young gangsters, Lau Kin Ming, to join the Hong Kong Police Force as a mole. At the same time, a young police cadet, Chan Wing Yan, is seemingly expelled from the police academy, but is actually sent to become an undercover agent in the triads. When a drug deal, in present time, between Hon Sum and a Thai cocaine dealer goes awry, both the police and the triad realize they they have a mole working for the other party in their own organization. Chan and Lau are forced to hunt down the other mole before his own identity is revealed. As they chase down the other person, both men begin to lose sense of their true selves after being undercover for 10 years. Chan and Lau must not only find the other mole first to protect themselves, but also to confirm that they have not forgotten who’s the real cop and gangster here.
Lau Kin Ming: “You want me dead?”
Chan Wing Yan: “Sorry, I’m a cop.”
Lau Kin Ming: “Who knows that?”
The police vs. triad genre is one of my very favorites for movies and dramas, and it’s also one of the mainstays of Hong Kong cinema. So naturally, I have seen my fair share of triad-themed movies, and I can confidently say that Infernal Affairs is the very best that I have ever watched. From its release in 2002, the movie became an instant classic that it is the triad movie that all other police vs. triad movies are compared with. And truthfully, none have been able to measure up to the powerhouse that is Infernal Affairs.
The premise of this movie is actually quite straightforward and so obvious that you wonder why no other movie had thought of using it before. Where Infernal Affairs excels is that it goes beyond the usual police vs. triad plot that is usually characterized by over-the-top street fights, and instead chooses to use that plot as a backdrop to explore the inner turmoil of two men who have been forced to assume an identity that is the virtual opposite of themselves. Imagine having to live a lie for 10 years. Eventually, you’re going to start to forget what the truth is. Infernal Affairs understands that the transformation of Chan Wing Yan and Lau Kin Ming from good to evil, and vice versa, is the real story here.
While Infernal Affairs does delve into the psyche and mentality of the two men quite a bit, this is still a fast-paced police vs. triad thriller that’s underscored by a tension-filled cat and mouse chase throughout. There’s a sense of paranoia that permeates the film because you never know who’s listening in on a conversation or watching your every move. The trade-off, however, for having a highly intellectual triad film that focuses more on the characters is that there’s a slight lack of really action-packed fight scenes. But instead of having shootouts between the police and gangs in every other scene, there’s a quietness in this film that makes you anxious of what is going to happen next. I personally didn’t miss the gunfire and fistfights that normally fill this genre of movies, but fans of more physical action in their films may find the lack of it in this movie a little frustrating.
Infernal Affairs features a star-studded cast that is the very best in the Hong Kong cinema game. And as expected, the acting is all around excellent, with most of the credit going to the two leading men, Andy Lau and Tony Leung, At first viewing, it may seem like Leung had the more difficult role as the emotionally tortured Chan, but Lau’s character may be ever so slightly more complex. Because his character is the cool, calm, and collected police officer, he needs to be more reserved in his action and emotions because the slightest deviation from the norm can reveal his identity. Chan, on the other hand, is allowed to be more outspoken within the triad. But in all honesty, both performances were so well done that the Best Actor awards could have gone to either Lau or Leung, and you would have had no objections from me.
As for the American remake, The Departed, I thought it was a fine movie when viewed individually and outside the context of it being an Infernal Affairs remake. In comparison to the original, the remake is definitely more bombastic, with the acting and directing style to be very “American.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but the overwrought emotions and actions do unfortunately take away from the plot that is supposed to be less about the physical fight, and more of the mental. The original still remains the better film.
Infernal Affairs is truly a cinematic masterpiece that hasn’t been duplicated since. This movie uses the tried-and-true triad genre to explore the depths of human nature when what you know and what you feel are conflicting with each other. Like the movie suggests, it really is an unrelenting hell when you don’t know who or what you are. I highly encourage everyone to watch this film, regardless of whether or not you enjoy the triad genre, because there has yet to be another movie that can rival Infernal Affairs‘ ability to articulate the inner struggle of when human nature is having an identity crisis.
This & That:
- The Chinese movie title, “Mo Gaan Dou,” is now synonymous with “traitor” or “mole” in Cantonese/Hong Kong slang.
- “Mo Gaan Dou” refers to the lowest level of hell in Buddhism, Avici.
- The movie won 6 awards at the 40th Golden Horse Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Tony Leung.
- It won 7 awards at the 22nd Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Leung.
- Infernal Affairs was remade into the 2006 American film, The Departed, directed by Martin Scorsese and starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. The Departed won Best Picture and Best Director at the 79th Academy Awards.