IMDB #246: Infernal Affairs (Mou gaan dou)

On our platters for Wednesday, the 2002 Hong Kong film that Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Best Picture Winner The Departed was based on, or more aptly, lifted wholesale on the way to the podium. It remains the only foreign film that’s won a Best Picture Oscar by proxy, insofar as that’s a distinction that anyone cares about.

The Key Players:

This was co-directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, and co-written by Mak and Felix Chong, who all had relative success in the Hong Kong market before breaking out with this film, which spawned a sequel and a prequel in addition to the remake.

Tony Leung, the most recognizable face (from my American perspective) plays the undercover cop posing as a thug. I remember him mainly for his angst ridden stoicism in War Kai-Wong movies like In The Mood For Love and 2046, and recently for his creepy stoicism in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution.

Andy Lau (no relation to Andrew Lau), most famous stateside for a role in House Of Flying Daggers, plays the bad guy posing as a cop.

Anthony Wong Chau-Sang and Eric Tsang also star as the lead cop and lead villain, respectively, while actresses Kelly Chen and Sammy Cheng round out the bill as Leung’s psychiatrist and Lau’s girlfriend.

I don’t know much about those four, but from what I’ve read the six of these stars represent the most famous movie stars in all of Hong Kong, all together in the same film- hence the record-breaking box office gross in its home country. It’s even more star studded than the Departed cast, with no offense meant to Vera Farmiga.

The Story:

So there’s a crime-lord (Tsang) who hatches the idea to enroll the youngest members of his gang in the police academy to have a mole on the inside- one of whom (Lau) quickly rises near the top of the chain.

About the same time, one of those police higher-ups (Wong Chau-Sang) has the idea to expel a promising recruit from the academy (Leung) on trumped up charges, but actually have him join the local drug trade as a police mole.

Ten years later all parties involved are walking a tightrope act of text messaging, morse code signals, covert meetings and tip-offs to keep one step ahead of each. Both sides realize they’ve got a leak, and rush to find it before the other side exposes theirs.

It’s a pretty tightly written movie, with some great moments- and I can’t stress enough how many of these moments are exactly the same in The Departed (even the thing with the writing on the envelope!). Infernal Affairs is a lot lighter on character development and has less of a visual flair for the dramatic, but the tension and clever symmetry of the story is not the invention of (Oscar winning Departed screenwriter) William Monaghan.

Amidst all this chicanery, Lau is trying to reconcile the life he leads with his role as a mob informant- he enjoys his work, and has just moved into an apartment with his girlfriend. Leung meanwhile, just wants his life of danger and suspicion to finally be over. Where will it all end?

The Artisticness:

One of my favorite elements of this film that wasn’t carried over to the American version is the habit of Eastern films to speak in proverbs and aphorisms. When both sides come face to face, in a pensive moment the police chief mentions a story: two men were waiting for kidney transplants, but only one kidney was available. So they each put a playing card in the other’s pocket, and whoever guesses their own card first, wins.

The villain smiles and says “You know, I can see your card.” The retort: “I can see yours as well.”

How awesome is that? This philosophical bent does get a little heavy handed with a bit about Lau’s girlfriend writing a book- it’s about a man with multiple personalities (get it?), but she doesn’t know “whether he’s good or bad.” Eh. Most of the script is to the point, however, and the quiet relationship of Leung and his court-ordered psychiatrist (he just goes to her office and sleeps for an hour, the only place he feels safe) is nicely understated.

There’s a particular visual look to this film as well that’s more memorable that the typical action movie, all gritty parking structures and sterile blue halogen for the two different worlds we visit. And an old-school score with lots of noir-horns and marching string overtures tops the cake.

The biggest artistic decision I disliked? The English title. The Chinese title of the film translates to “the non-stop path,” which is a reference to the lowest level of hell in Buddhism where those who have committed bad deeds go to be reborn. “Infernal Affairs”? Mostly just a horrible pun.

THE ENDING! SPOILERS! (This spoils The Departed as well)

The good guy gets shot in the head! After spending nearly the entire film apart, Lau and Leung confront one another on the rooftop, but another mole ends up killing Leung. It’s a gut-check moment, and gives the film a lot more weight and thematic resonance than a prototypical happy ending would.

This is the sort of decision I would I have disliked on the face of it a while ago, before it occurred to me that movie characters don’t live beyond the credits, anyway- who cares if they die at the end of a film, as long as it’s a great moment? Although how they made a sequel with this character dead, and a prequel when they hadn’t crossed paths for the preceding ten years is beyond me.

Scorsese and co. made plenty of changes to the ending in their version, which we’ll get into in a year or so, but kept this same moment more or less as is. I knew it was coming as soon as I saw an elevator, because I’d seen this already.


Overall- Should it be Higher, Lower?

I’m not sure- I know this is probably unfair, but seeing The Departed makes me realize how workmanlike and sparse this film is- they gloss over the initiation of both undercover agents into enemy territory, and don’t give us enough time with certain characters to really care when they get shot.

But you can’t go around holding people up to masters of cinema, and without Infernal Affairs, that other movie obviously wouldn’t exist. So I think it does deserve a place here, definitely for the originality and execution of its story.

The Legacy:

Well, clearly it’s an entire franchise over in Hong Kong, and the genesis point of an modern American classic. It also revitalized an entire country’s film industry, which by all accounts had become pretty stagnant and predicable.

It just goes to show that it’s all about story and originality, and building the proverbial better mousetrap- of course in this country we don’t really get that point until we remake the gorram thing.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

More Spoilers! Aaah, they're everywhere!

Apparently the Chinese Board of Censorship demanded an alternate ending be shot wherein Lau gets exposed as a traitor and arrested, immediately after the elevator standoff. The clip is below, although it has German subtitles- you still get the idea. Whatever- at least they don't pan to a shot of a rat...

End Additional Spoilers!

Leftover Thoughts:

  • There’s a random scene in the middle where Leung runs into an old flame from “six or seven” years ago, who has a daughter that she tells Leung is five, and then gives him the polite brush-off because he’s a thug and all. When he’s gone her daughter’s all like “but mommy I’m six already.” Oh snap. This is never really touched upon later, not in detail anyway.
  • Also the beginning of the film makes it pretty clear that Lau and Leung went to the same police academy (via some flashback actors that show up in the prequel a lot apparently)- there’s no chance they’d remember one another ten years later? It’s been ten years since I went to middle school and I remember some things pretty vividly. Actually, the trailer above refers to them as "friends," but I think that's just something that got lost in translation.
  • I guess I never touched on Scorsese’s decision to shoehorn both love interests into one character, which always struck me as kinda forced. Don’t put sitcom style coincidences into my gritty crime thrillers.
Coming up on the top 250 Countdown:

Friday: Arsenic And Old Lace

Monday: Network

Wednesday: Roman Holiday

2 Response to "IMDB #246: Infernal Affairs (Mou gaan dou)"

  1. Ok, this is an absolutely terrible film. What's good about it is that it shows just how good a director Scorsese is, that he can take material that in lesser hands, such as this film's (hands), would be awful, and make a great film out of it. The direction in this is absolutely pants. Just compare the quality of the direction in individual scenes and the overall storytelling with "The Departed" and you'll see the difference between very good direction and very bad direction. I mean, just compare the scenes where the police surveil the mob's exchange and are alerted to this by their mole with the cops, or where the captain gets thrown off the roof, or particularly where Leung/DiCaprio get it in the end. The other good thing about this is that it also shows how great an actor Tony Leung is (if anyone hadn't already realized it); he's the best thing in it.

    ZHENQING says:

    Not sure why I'm awake at 6am in the morning writing this, but what the hey... I'll defend Infernal Affairs any time of the day.

    Infernal Affairs is tons more deep and subliminal than Scorsese's adaptation. The shallowness / obviousness of The Departed is even mocked on the Simpsons.

    The worst atrocity to come of Scorcese's adaptation is the ending. In the Departed, Mark Wahlberg comes back from nowhere and kills the bad mole (Matt Damon) effectively giving the movie a "fairy tell ending" where the good guys win. In Infernal Affairs, quite the opposite happens. The bad mole (Andy Lau) gets away with killing the good mole (Tony Leung) is exonerated from all wrong-doings and even promoted to chief of police. In other words, the bad guys win. The ending is tons more realistic than Walhberg stepping out from nowhere to deal the final hand of justice.

    Infernal Affairs needs to be appreciated as a trilogy, because what Scorsese did was compress over 6 hours of screen time into a 2 hour movie. Granted the prequel and sequel of Infernal Affairs aren't very good movies on their own, the full picture is what's important. Judging Infernal Affairs on its own is difficult because it's like judging the theatrical release of LOTR: The Two Towers on its own when you know there is an extended edition as well as a prequel and sequel. It's just not fair.

    My only beef with The Departed (on its own) is how much blatant plagiarism occurs. Beyond sharing the same backdrop, Scorsese STEALS ENTIRE LINES/SCENES from Infernal Affairs. If Scorsese made a mafia movie with a Don who keeps "making offers you can't refuse," threatening his enemies with severed horse heads, and then dies of a heart attack with an orange peel in his mouth, do you think he could work another day in Hollywood? No. Directors in the US are shamed to not plagiarize those immortal scenes/lines. But when it comes to plagiarizing from an Asian director (and we're not talking about on the level of Sturges adapting Kurosawa in The Magnificent Seven), Scorsese has no shame in copying over anything and everything.

    On the bright side, The Departed's success has increased the awareness of Infernal Affairs and more importantly -- Tony Leung. The man speaks English fluently, and I hope more spotlight on Tony in the US will encourage him to make a movie in the US.

Powered by Blogger