A Heat-style high-gloss thriller about mirror-image cop and triad moles, Infernal Affairs is the biggest homegrown hit Hong Kong has produced in recent years. Tony Rayns assesses its impact
Infernal Affairs (Wu jian Dao) opened in Hong Kong a week before Christmas 2002, at the end of the local film industry's worst year in decades. Prod
uction had dropped to 80 features - from 100 in 2001 - and no local film since Stephen Chow's action comedy Shaolin Soccer (Shaolin Zuqiu, released in summer 2001 to record-breaking success) had done what local films have been routinely expected to do since the mid 1960s: beat imported movies in the home market and clean up throughout East Asia. But Infernal Affairs was popular from the day it opened - so much so that its press ads soon starting advising the public that they could express their love for Hong Kong by supporting the film. The local box-office gross was eventually in the region of US$7 million; there was immediate talk of a sequel (it's now a trilogy) and the DVD went on to sell truckloads. Given that the Hong Kong economy has been stuck in recession for several years, and that the entire population of the territory is just over 7 million, this was a remarkable success.
What makes it all the more surprising is the film itself, which is neither a standard popcorn flick nor the kind of feelgood movie which has kept the Hong Kong film industry going through its leanest years. On the contrary, Infernal Affairs lives up to its title with a generally hellish account of the never-ending battle of wits and bullets between the police and triad gangs. The Chinese title, by the way, is more specific than the English one: it means 'The Way of Wujian', Wujian being the deepest circle of hell in Buddhist mythology.
Here is the storyline. In 1991 a squad of police recruits in training includes Chan Wing-Yan and Lau Kin-Ming. Chan is seemingly expelled from the team by Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong), but actually leaves under orders to infiltrate a triad gang. Unbeknown to both of them, Lau is actually a mole for triad boss Hon Sam (Eric Tsang). Eleven years later Chan (Tony Leung) is a trusted lieutenant in Hon Sam's gang, secretly reporting to Wong; he is also undergoing psychiatric counselling and is desperate to end his life in deep cover. Meanwhile Lau (Andy Lau) has become a model cop under Wong, secretly reporting to Hon Sam; he too seems eager to stop his life as a mole. Thanks to Chan's information the police succeed in intercepting a boatload of Class-A drugs from Thailand before Hon Sam can take delivery, but the bust leaves both sides aware that they have traitors in their ranks. The two moles are assigned the task of rooting out the traitors on their respective sides, while in private each frantically tries to discover the identity of the other.
Very little in this plot is new. The iconic figure of the police mole embedded in a triad gang and on the verge of cracking up was introduced in Alex Cheung's Man on the Brink (Bianyuan Ren, 1981), one of the earliest Hong Kong 'new wave' films. Cheung, who shot it himself and gave it as much docudrama 'realism' as his schematic plotting allowed, stressed the psychological cost of working in deep cover and ended the film on a howl of rage: the hero is beaten (to death?) by the residents of a resettlement estate, who take him for a real triad thug. The film was remade 13 years later by another director-cinematographer as To Live and Die in Tsimshatsui (Xin Bianyuan Ren, 'New Man on the Brink', 1994), this time with Jacky Cheung playing the tortured mole. The second version anthologises the stupidities of Hong Kong cinema in the years running up to the reversion to China's sovereignty: it is glossy, hyperbolically violent, slackly plotted and deeply insincere - and it ends happily with the mole finding true love. It was made by Andrew Lau, now co-director and co-cinematographer of the Infernal Affairs trilogy.
Scripted by its other co-director Alan Mak, Infernal Affairs is vastly more ambitious than these precedents. First, it doubles its central motif by matching the police mole in the triads with a triad mole in the police; the complication yields levels of psychological and moral complexity way more intense than anything in the earlier films. Second, it's plotted and edited so densely that it can do without the usual vacuous action set-pieces; it demands close attention and repays it by generating a credible level of suspense. Third, it's made by people who have clocked up many hours with David Fincher and Michael Mann movies; it's a film with a very clear sense of its own 'look', purged of most primary colours and bathed in steely shades of blue and grey. Chris Doyle, credited as Visual Consultant, claims to have shot several days of it; Andrew Lau says that Doyle helped with pre-production tests of film stocks and printing processes but didn't shoot any of the actual feature.
The attention to detail and assumption that viewers will be ready and willing to work to connect all the dots explain at least part of the film's success in Hong Kong. This is not the time or place to go into the many shortcomings of Hong Kong cinema in the 1990s, but it's fair to say that the industry as a whole displayed a particularly unattractive mixture of laziness and greed. By the late 1980s most Hong Kong films were in profit before a frame was shot: it was routine to pre-sell films (on the strength of a title, a genre and two or more star names) throughout East Asia, and a pre-sale to Taiwan alone was generally lucrative enough to cover two-thirds of the cost of making the film. These circumstances bred complacency. Many films were sloppily improvised, without shooting scripts; many actors devalued their own currency by accepting too many roles in too many lousy movies; ideas and sometimes whole scenes were freely plagiarised from other movies, local and foreign. And then affordable CGI came along, and things got really bad.
So the fact that Infernal Affairs is sophisticated in its writing, editing and performances makes it a novelty in recent Hong Kong cinema. Viewers were evidently happy to be confronted by a grown-up movie comparable with such Hollywood imports as Se7en and Heat, and the film quickly became a talking point in the media, which undoubtedly had the effect of broadening its audience. Of course, canny timing, distribution and marketing helped. It's harder to say whether or not the film's themes (duplicity, identity loss, arduous duty trumping social/sexual/familial comforts) had some metaphorical or other meaning for the local audience, but it's clear that the overall view of Hong Kong as a grim moral quagmire _somehow resonated with their pessimism about the territory's future under a Beijing-approved administration widely seen as incompetent to deal with economic recession, health scares and the unstable housing market.
The film has considerable star power in Hong Kong and even elsewhere in East Asia, despite the decline in enthusiasm for Hong Kong movies. Tony Leung is the only star well known to western audiences, thanks to his appearances in five Wong Kar-Wai films (he won the Best Actor prize in Cannes for Happy Together), his near-silent performance in Trân Anh Hûng's Cyclo and his starring role - as an undercover cop! - in John Woo's Hard Boiled. Now managed by Wong Kar-Wai's company, he has a parallel, less successful career as a pop singer. Andy Lau started as a television actor and came into films as a would-be escapee from a Vietnamese re-education camp in Ann Hui's Boat People (1982). He has done some good work in films since then, notably as the sailor in Wong Kar-Wai's Days of Being Wild and as a soldier besotted with a Japanese spy in Eddie Fong's riotous Kawashima Yoshiko, but in conventional romances, comedies and gangster movies he too often seems too struck by his own beauty to act. Infernal Affairs makes better use of his narcissistic qualities than any other recent film. He too doubles as a pop singer; most Hong Kong movie stars do.
The film's two 'father figures' are both distinguished character actors who have starred in countless movies. The Eurasian Anthony Wong for many years specialised in the most grotesque and perverse roles he could find, from cannibals to the most bestial of triad meatheads. He began to take himself and the films a little more seriously after playing a militant Catholic priest on hunger strike in Ann Hui's Ordinary Heroes (1999). You could say that his career started in Klaus Kinski territory and has moved into Michel Piccoli territory. Eric Tsang is one of the industry's movers and shakers: he produces and directs features and presents for television as well as acting. Since rising to the challenge of playing the hapless seducer in Wayne Wang's English-language Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989) he seems to 'stretch' himself whenever the chance presents itself; recently as the fake-macho gangster in Riley Ip's Metade Fumaça and as the distraught kidnapped cop in Peter Chan's episode of Three. He also notably lends his name and time to small indie projects, such as the stylish and likeably pretentious film about a morgue Fu Bo (2003, co-directed by Wong Ching-Po and Lee Kung-Lok); Anthony Wong guest-appears in it too.
The more prominent of the two directors, Andrew Lau, preceded Chris Doyle as Wong Kar-Wai's cinematographer. He shot Wong's debut feature As Tears Go By (1988) and half of Chungking Express (1994). As director-cinematographer he's best known for the first four parts of the Young and Dangerous series (1996-7), which are moderately entertaining gangster melodramas about struggles for supremacy in the Hong Kong-Macau criminal underworld, based on popular comics and incorporating real-life triad-gang news whenever possible. He's also responsible for two bloated martial-arts fantasies, also drawn from comics, both overegged with CGI effects but with severely malnourished scripts: The Storm Riders (1998) and A Man Called Hero (1999). Most of this stuff is out on DVD in the UK. The other director, Alan Mak, trained as an actor but joined the film industry as an assistant director. He wrote the original script for Infernal Affairs and is responsible for the overall shape and structure of the trilogy. By his own account, he worked mainly with the actors on the set, leaving Andrew Lau to work more "like a producer".
However, as the latest edition of the Time Out Film Guide notes, "there's no hint of an auteur sensibility at play" in the film. The very useful book Hong Kong Panorama 2002 - 2003, published by the Hong Kong International Film Festival, contains brief but revealing interviews with both directors. Andrew Lau, for instance, discusses the perceived need to give each star enough screentime ("Six scenes between [Andy] Lau and [Tony] Leung, three scenes among the four stars") and the need to get some women into the story ("The one dangerous factor, as far as the market was concerned, was that we didn't have a female lead"). The latter problem was solved by creating cameos for stars-of-the-moment Sammi Cheng as Lau's fiancée and Kelly Chen as Chan's psychiatrist. For his part, Alan Mak talks about the rewriting process: "I had to compromise and adjust to the market." Although it's clear that Mak is the one with the overarching concept for the film, both of them sound less like creative types than genre technicians with one eye always on the marketing.
Infernal Affairs II opened in Hong Kong in October 2003 and has grossed (at the time of writing) about half what the first film earned - which still makes it a considerable hit. Infernal Affairs: The Final Chapter opens just before Christmas 2003, exactly a year after the first film. The second film is essentially a prequel, spanning the years 1991-7. It spells out what happened to Chan and Lau (and to their respective father figures) between their leaving police academy and the events of the first film. As in the first film's prologue, Chan is played by Shawn Yue and Lau by Edison Chen, both up-and-coming singer-actors. The plotting is even more complicated this time: as one Hong Kong critic comments, "Almost every character has a secret agenda, if not a secret identity, and the mood is dense to the point that it becomes self-important." The third film will counterpoint two time frames: 2001 ("The Best of Times"), which fills in the gap between parts II and I and reunites all the original stars, and 2004 ("The Worst of Times"), which shows the aftermath of the first film and confronts Lau with yet another triad mole in the police force.
Alan Mak explicitly invokes the Godfather trilogy when discussing the expansion of the original Infernal Affairs, and Infernal Affairs II introduces a Michael Corleone figure in the shape of Hau (played by Francis Ng), the son of a murdered triad kingpin, who ruthlessly schemes and kills his way to power. Just as Coppola edited a version of his trilogy for television with the complicated chronology straightened out, it's not hard to imagine Andrew Lau and Alan Mak doing the same with Infernal Affairs for a 'special edition' DVD. Whatever debts the creators of Infernal Affairs may owe to Coppola and Puzo, the underlying point is that they explicitly see themselves as operating in the same arena as Hollywood. They have raised their game by thinking more about script, structure and the 'look' of the film, not to mention the opportunities offered to the actors, and they have crafted a superior generic entertainment. Andrew Lau: "We have been in the business of making Hong Kong movies for quite a long time and we wanted our film to be different from previous Hong Kong movies. If we don't change, we'll die."
The first Infernal Affairs has sold to several countries, including the UK and the US. (Miramax has it in the States and may well bury it in its vaults - as it has with Shaolin Soccer and many other Hong Kong films.) Does this mean Lau and Mak will save the Hong Kong film industry in its hour of crisis? Probably not, although the excellent box-office results in Hong Kong can only help. From a strictly business point of view, giving a stylish new spin to shopworn genre material lays no foundations for the reconstruction of a film industry in trouble. This kind of success is inherently short-lived; it defers collapse rather than rescinding it. Ironically, one of Lau and Mak's contemporaries has been pursuing exactly this policy for more than ten years already: Johnnie To (sometimes with his creative partner Wai Kar-Fai, sometimes without) directs and produces heavily burnished updates of old genre formulas, including his share of police-triad thrillers. Despite stolid support from Hong Kong's critics and a couple of international festivals, his work hasn't ushered in a return to the glory days of the 1980s.
As festival-goers know, the real creative energies in Hong Kong film culture are found in the work of a handful of mavericks (Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan, Ann Hui, Fruit Chan...) and in the growing number of younger independent film-makers, none of whom shows much desire to work within what remains of the industry. Taiwan already provides a likely model for Hong Kong's future film culture - an environment with no surviving film industry as such but with a scattering of auteur directors running their own companies and resourcefully digging up finance and a larger scattering of indies, working more and more on video. But it's also true that Hong Kong has a stronger entrepreneurial spirit than Taiwan, and so something new may well happen along to change the picture. After all, some bright spark has opened a Japanese fusion restaurant on Chatham Road in Kowloon and called it Wujian Dao (Infernal Affairs). Last time I looked, there were lines outside every night.