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Criterion Recollection: Ingenuity, Identity, and Integrity in ‘Infernal Affairs’


Still from Infernal Affairs
Media Asia

A triad member in the police department and an undercover cop working for a gangster are pitted against each other in a dangerous game of cat and mouse in the phenomenal thriller Infernal Affairs. The film, which was co-directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, features Hong Kong superstars Andy Lau and Tony Leung as moles on opposing sides of a terrific battle of wits between a ruthless mob boss (Eric Tsang) and a tough police sergeant (Anthony Wong). Over the course of the movie, both spies struggle with and question their many years spent living double lives, wondering where their true selves lie while working assiduously to discover the other and avoid being unmasked.


As some may know, this riveting thriller was remade into Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, with the setting moved from Hong Kong to Boston and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. While also a well-respected film, an unfortunate Whitey Bulger-inspired secondary plot (headlined by Jack Nicholson) somewhat derailed the tightly written, original story of the two moles. However, both films share themes of dual identities, complicated relationships to male authority figures (namely the moles’ respective police handler and gang leader), and religious overtones (Buddhism in Infernal Affairs and Catholicism in The Departed).


Infernal Affairs packs a lot into a taut 101 minutes. The visuals are slick, with Hong Kong’s distinctive edifices highlighted in indelible rooftop and nighttime scenes. The characters are not always obvious in their intent, requiring the viewer to pay close attention in order to catch deliberate clues left by the filmmakers. But the performances are strong, especially those of the lead characters. The plotting is suitably tightly paced. There are several ingenious and unforgettably tense scenes where one mole is almost caught sending messages to one boss while interacting with another, or is about to unmask the counter mole. The film’s twists, betrayals, and other complications form an obstacle course for the two lead characters who already walk a tightrope within their own high pressure environments in the clashing realms of lawfulness and lawlessness.


The film takes its English title from the term “internal affairs,” which references the investigations made within the police force, and “inferno,” another name for hell. The lives of the two central characters of the film are consumed with anxiety and peril as they live under the weight of their demanding, life-or-death occupations and even more so when their superiors find out that there is a mole in the ranks. The movie takes time to reveal and process the psychological toll that leading a double life has on these twinned men, although the real cop is far more sympathetic than the fake cop.


Leung’s character Chan struggles with the greater sacrifice of operating undercover for years within the immediate danger of a volatile mob boss’s inner circle while he secretly supplies information to the police. He is isolated and unhappy; he yearns to be his true, morally unambiguous self. Chan’s only link to the legitimate world is Superintendent Wong, his handler, who acts as a mentor but continues to pressure Chan into staying in place as a valuable mole. He has a psychiatrist (Kelly Chen) to confide in, but Chan never reveals the true nature of his job to her, although he clearly would like to have a sympathetic ear. A small scene with an ex-girlfriend adds another layer to his story of hellish sacrifice.


Lau’s character, by contrast, excels in his police work and has a much more comfortable life (new condo, nice girlfriend, expensive stereo), but he questions whether or not he would prefer his official position as a cop to be his only identity as he finds himself enjoying the trappings of success and legitimacy and increasingly exasperated by the demands of hiding his ties to the triad. His machinations to preserve his own skin while playing both sides against each other leads to devastating consequences that do really seem to weigh upon him, casting a guilty pall over his victories and ratcheting up his paranoia. His lack of principle also causes him to suffer everlasting punishment.


The ingeniously heart-stopping plot, layered performances of characters going through identity crises, plus the weightier musings on the state of a soul living a life of false integrity make Infernal Affairs a brilliant example of the thriller genre.


Infernal Affairs was originally released in 2002.

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