"Wow, t.A.T.u. sounds great,
but are they really Russian?"
Over the last two decades or so, Hong Kong has been busy establishing itself as the second Hollywood. The HK film industry is as relentlessly prolific as Tinseltown, and unlike the similarly prodigious Indian moviemaking community, a large number of these movies are highly accessible to foreign audiences. (Sorry, Bollywood -- the three-hour-long musical crime soap-operas just don't wow 'em abroad like they do at home.) The most accessible of these films, of course, are those in the action genre. Kung fu fights and gun battles need no translation, and the martial arts flair these movies exude has forced Hollywood to play catch-up in the coolness department.
Fortunately, Hong Kong filmmakers have proven as adept at other genres as they have at action films, and those viewers willing to read subtitles have enjoyed a healthy crop of films from a multitude of genres. The most intriguing of these additional genres, however, is the crime drama. It benefits from the experience of the action films, but it also draws upon a wealth of real-life back story -- the Hong Kong Triads. The Triads have provided the Hong Kong film industry with a genre all by themselves, from films about young men who grow up in the gangs (the Young and Dangerous series) to films that revolve around undercover cops. The most recent winner of the best picture award at the HK Film Awards, Infernal Affairs, includes both of these elements.
Though the title would be appropriate for a much different sort of film, Infernal Affairs is actually a slick cops-and-robbers flick. It's also pretty smart and doesn't rely on action to move the plot. That's surprising because the movie was directed by Andrew Lau, the director behind such dumb (but occasionally fun) action orgies as The Storm Riders and A Man Called Hero. The American equivalent would be if Michael Bay were to make . . . um, a good movie of any kind.
"Hurry it up, I have to be comic relief
in four more movies this month!"
Infernal Affairs splits its story between two main characters. On one side is Lau (hunky pop star Andy Lau), a secret Triad member who enrolled in the police academy years ago and has been moving his way up the ladder in the Hong Kong police force. Andy Lau's main talent is the ability to smirk handsomely, and he puts it to good use here as a guy who has everything going his own way -- at least at first. On the other side is Chan (Tony Leung), a cop so far undercover in the Triads that only his immediate superior knows he's a cop at all. After this and his similar role in Hard Boiled, we're beginning to get the sense that Tony Leung could play an undercover cop in his sleep. Lau has been using his position as a vice cop to tip off his Triad boss (Sam, played by HK regular Eric Tsang) to police movements. During a particularly tense early scene, Lau not only aids Sam in avoiding an elaborate sting set up by Lau's supervisor, Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), but also comes to realize that Wong has his own mole inside Sam's organization. Wong wises up to the fact that he has a traitor of his own, and with a boss and an unidentified mole on each side, things quickly become violently chaotic.
The premise alone would be enough to distinguish the film from most other tales of criminal intrigue, but the plot is joined by an equally interesting glimpse into the minds of the moles. Since each spy has been living the life chosen by the other (Chan was even expelled dishonorably from the police academy to complete his cover story), there's more than a little envy between the two men. Lau's love for his fiancée makes him doubt his own motivations as a gangster, but his loyalty to Sam keeps him on the hook. Chan has been undercover for so long that he barely remembers his own birthday, and in furtive rooftop meetings he pleads desperately with Wong to extract him from his assignment. As the chess match between Wong and Sam rages on, the audience is tantalized by the possibility that the pawns will change the rules of the game.
"Excuse me, I'm looking for
the Colin Farrell sulk-alike auditions."
Lest we forget, the film is not entirely about the spies, but also about the men who command them. Sam and Wong are formidable opponents, very unlike one another in personality, but each with the same problem: how to outwit an opponent who gets advance notice of your moves? And whom does one trust in this situation? Eric Tsang does his best to impersonate Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, gesticulating wildly and bringing a cocksure air to his character, while simultaneously unraveling into a paranoid mess. Anthony Wong gives a restrained performance as a restrained police superintendent; he doesn't do anything flashy (unless you count his final scene, which was certainly performed by a stunt man), but he won a Hong Kong Film Award for his role anyway. Wong was also nominated for two other films. He's the Meryl Streep of Hong Kong, if Meryl Streep were a creepy-looking guy who specialized in playing serial killers, criminals, and turncoats.
Hong Kong: blue water, clear skies,
and armed to the teeth.
Tossed into the mix are a number of peripheral characters, some of whom are more adept at justifying their screen time than others. Lau undergoes therapy for the problems that arise from his undercover status, but in a perplexing bit of script nonsense, his therapist (an attractive woman, of course) isn't allowed to know that he isn't actually a Triad thug. (She falls for him anyway.) Chan has woman troubles of his own, as his relationship with his fiancée becomes as difficult to maintain as his double life. Serving as a sort of Greek chorus to it all are the gang members and police officers who observe and befriend the main characters, further complicating their lives. Is it wrong for Lau to care about the fates of his Triad pals? Why does Chan feel ashamed when he "botches" a sting operation, and fellow police officers are killed in the process?
The general perception is that the last few years have been lean when it comes to quality Hong Kong productions. As a result, Infernal Affairs was widely embraced if not as a turnaround in the current trend of an industry wading through a period of stagnation, then at least as an oasis from it. Infernal Affairs split the Hong Kong Film Awards with Hero, another excellent film, though Affairs won the most prestigious awards. Sadly, the best qualities of this film, especially its reliance on drama over action, will probably keep it from being seen widely in the U.S. Warner Bros. has paid for the remake rights, but as with all such remake efforts, we can't help but wonder: will the Hollywood version be inspired to similar heights by the example, or will it drag the original's name through the mud of mediocrity?