A high-concept, riveting police drama, in which two Hong Kong cops (each informing for the other side) find their destinies inextricably intertwined, “Infernal Affairs” holds its audience in a vice-like grip for 100 minutes as the dark, claustrophobic narrative winds its way to an emotionally powerful climax. Easily the most powerful movie from the territory in a long while, and looking set to be one of the biggest local earners of all time, pic is superbly honed at both script and performance levels, with character taking precedence over action. Savvy marketing could make this a niche attraction beyond East Asia, with festival platforming also an option. Remake potential is especially high.
Since opening in mid-December, pic has hawled in over HK$50 million ($6.4 million) in Hong Kong alone, beating out strong competition from both “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” and Zhang Yimou’s martial artser “Hero.” It looks likely to finish at around $7 million, right behind the territory’s all-time B.O. champ, “Shaolin Soccer.” Film also reasserts the position of prolific d.p.-turned-helmer Andrew Lau, best known for his “Young and Dangerous” triad series, who’s essayed a wide range of genres since then with varying success. Younger co-helmer and co-scripter Alan Mak has five features to his credit, from dramas to romances.
Lau also takes a co-lensing credit on the picture, whose look — all cold, muddy colors, displayed in widescreen — is just one aspect of a production that shows care at every level. (Noted d.p. Christopher Doyle, whose talents are currently on display in “Hero,” cops a credit as “visual consultant.”) Shot in a lean, zippy, semi-procedural style, pic at times recalls the grittily stylized ambience of Johnnie To’s late-’90s action dramas, like “The Longest Nite.”
Opening — whose full significance only becomes clear much later on — shows a young kid, Lau Kin-ming (Edison Chen), being instilled with triad philosophy by mob boss Hon Sam (Eric Tsang). In a rapidly sketched section, Lau subsequently enrolls at a police cadet training school, where he first meets Supt. Wong (Anthony Wong) and watches as another student, Chan Wing-yan (Shawn Yue), leaves for the dangerous and solitary occupation of a deep-cover police informer.
Ten years later, Lau (morphed into Andy Lau) has become an inspector with a spotless record, and Chan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) a nervy stool pigeon living on his wits and close to burnout, his real identity known only to Wong. Not recognizing each other, Lau and Chan briefly meet by chance in a hi-fi shop, when the former buys some new stereo equipment.
Wong has promised Chan that he can finally surface after one more job — nailing Hon, who has a shipment of cocaine coming in from Thailand. In the first of several gripping set pieces, the cops monitor the meeting between Hon and his Thai contact (Chaucharew Wichai), with Chan secretly sending Morse-code messages to Wong while Lau passes info back to Hon that he has a stoolie in his midst.
Beautifully cut and scored, the tense, 14-minute sequence, rife with cat-and-mouse play, sets up an atmosphere of mutual suspicion among both cops and crims that informs the rest of the picture. Seg also showcases the whole cast (down to the smallest roles), ending with a face-off at police headquarters in which Hon and Wong, both knowing they have an informer in their ranks, make the game deeply personal.
That’s just the start, some 35 minutes in, of a yarn that twists and turns with beguiling cleverness. First twist is that Lau is transferred to Internal Affairs to investigate the triad mole within the force, rapidly mirrored by Chan promising Hon that he’ll find out who the police stoolie is. With each of the two main characters now investigating himself, but without knowing who his mirror mole is, the game heats up as Hon prepares to receive another drugs shipment amid much nervousness on both sides.
Following a shocking suprise an hour in — whereby Lau cleverly tries to isolate Chan and also protect himself — the narrative enters its deadly third act, with each party still ignorant of the other’s identity but as close as a whisper to finding out (and being found out). Ending is both ironic and moving.
Pic’s major accomplishment is its script, which shows none of the usual weaknesses of Hong Kong productions, remaining tightly wound even during the final half-hour. Even that, however, would be nothing without a cast at the top of its game, with Lau and Leung very good as the cocky, seemingly incorruptible cop and nervy, psychologically damaged stoolie. Leung, miscast in “Hero,” is especially sympathetic here.
Pleasantest surprise, however, is Wong’s performance as Chan’s police contact: thesp is now producing some of his best work after a long career in outre roles, and his textured playing here is among his best to date, his cool authority mirroring Tsang’s as the ruthless, suspicious triad boss.
Distaff roles are rather over-cast for their peripheral place in the story, and neither Sammi Cheng nor Kelly Chen really convince as Lau’s g.f. and Chan’s shrink. Newcomer Elva Hsiao is better in a small but interesting role as Chan’s former g.f., adding a touching grace-note to Chan’s back story.
(For the record, a version specially prepared for release in China (where pic went straight to DVD) and Malaysia has an abbreviated, different ending, in which the bad guys get their desserts. Also, a prequel, starring Yue and Edison Chen as the younger leads, is planned.
Chinese title roughly means “No Way Out,” referring to a Buddhist sutra which states “the worst of the Eight Hells is Continuous Hell — continuous suffering.”