The Infernal Affairs Trilogy: Double Bind
This essay reveals plot details from all three Infernal Affairs films.
There’s a beautiful moment of calm before the storm in the superb crime thriller Infernal Affairs (2002), before all the tricky double-dealings, tense rooftop rendezvous, and shadowy back-alley pursuits begin. Shopping at an electronics store in Hong Kong’s bustling Kowloon District, Lau Kin-ming (Andy Lau Tak-wah) approaches Chen Wing-yan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who he assumes is the proprietor, in probably the movie’s most innocuous case of mistaken identity. The men don’t recognize each other from 1991, more than a decade earlier, when they were cadets at the same police academy. Chen doesn’t know that Lau is a detective, and Lau doesn’t know that Chen is a triad gangster. Nor do they know each other’s true identities—though, crucially, we do: Chen is really an undercover cop, working from within to take down the very criminal organization that has secretly embedded Lau as a mole within the police force.
For all these devilishly intricate spy games, the mood here is curiously serene. Enjoying a moment’s respite, the men strike up an easy camaraderie, buoyed by the charisma of two megastars in their prime. Infernal Affairs and its two successors, all three directed by Andrew Lau Wai-keung and Alan Mak, may derive their conceptual cool and philosophical gravity from the Buddhist notion of “continuous hell,” but for the moment Chen and Lau are ensconced in a shimmering consumerist purgatory. And it’s in this purely transactional context that these two strangers and enemies, trapped in cycles of deceit, can each reveal something honest about who they are. For Lau, criminality has become a means to a socially respectable end: he loves the perks of the perceived straight and narrow, among them his marriage to Mary (Sammi Cheng Sau-man), a novelist; a nice new apartment; and a secure foothold in Hong Kong’s consumer economy. Chen dreams more modestly of freedom, a life off the streets, a desk job. Years of busts and beatings (some endured, some inflicted) haven’t expunged his fundamental decency: even when he’s just minding the store, he wouldn’t dream of ripping you off.
Lau leaves with a tube amplifier, a purchase that will come back to haunt him during the story’s climactic unraveling. But first, he and Chen test a couple of speakers, playing the Taiwanese singer Tsai Chin’s 1980 hit “Forgotten Time,” a melancholy song of memory that, like everything else in this suavely multitasking movie, operates on multiple levels. Like a thread weaving its way through a labyrinth, the song pointedly recurs in Infernal Affairs II and Infernal Affairs III (both 2003), each time ushering the rare sound of a woman’s voice into this intensely masculine world, with its neglectful fathers, disobedient sons, and treacherous brotherhoods. Again and again, too, the song raises the specter of an irretrievable past, not just for Chen and Lau but for Hong Kong itself, here just a few years into its governance under China’s “one country, two systems” policy. It is a city-state that, no less profoundly than these two endlessly thwarted and conflicted double agents, is enduring its own crisis of identity.
Infernal Affairs is the first collaboration between the Hong Kong–born filmmakers Andrew Lau (not to be confused with Andy Lau, speaking of doubling) and Mak. By that time, Mak had directed a handful of features, including the psychological horror movie Nude Fear (1998) and the triad drama A War Named Desire (2000). Andrew Lau had shot and directed several entries in the triad-themed Young and Dangerous film series; he had also worked as a cinematographer on Wong Kar Wai’s As Tears Go By (1988) and Chungking Express (1994). (Indeed, something of Wong’s dreamy visual signature—his cool fish-tank greens and warm, burnished golds—persists in the color palette of the trilogy, which Lau coshot as well as codirected.) The script for Infernal Affairs is by Mak and Felix Chong Man-keung, who had written the 2001 romantic comedy Dance of a Dream (directed by Andrew Lau and starring Andy Lau). After their success with the Infernal Affairs trilogy, Andrew Lau, Mak, and Chong would all three reunite on the action films Initial D (2005) and Confession of Pain (2006), while Mak and Chong would codirect the Overheard movies (2009, 2011, and 2014), another Hong Kong crime trilogy. But none of them was likely dreaming about this kind of sustained collaboration when cameras started rolling on the first Infernal Affairs; they simply wanted to make a good, profitable movie in an industry that badly needed one.
It soon became clear that they had significantly surpassed their expectations. Released in December 2002 to record-breaking grosses and subsequently screened to much acclaim at international festivals, Infernal Affairs swiftly became known as the film that saved Hong Kong cinema. It rejuvenated a domestic box office that had been devastated by piracy and would soon be devastated anew by the 2002–03 SARS epidemic. It swept the 2003 Hong Kong Film Awards, winning Best Film, Best Actor (Leung), and Best Director, among other categories. And it spawned an Oscar-winning Hollywood remake in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006). That film may have struck more than a few Infernal Affairs fans (this one included) as a solid if inferior redo, but there’s something fitting about the idea of this Hong Kong crime saga spawning its own popular American double. Hong Kong action filmmakers, after all, had been drawing energy and inspiration from American gangster movies for decades.
The Infernal Affairs trilogy itself is a brilliant example of this cultural cross-pollination at work. Its elaborate machinations hark back to various 1980s Hong Kong crime classics, including John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow and The Killer and Ringo Lam’s City on Fire—all rife with the kinds of moral ambiguities that would become increasingly difficult to forge in the more censorious post-1997-handover Hong Kong industry. But the trilogy’s debt to Hollywood cinema is no less profound. For one, there’s that hellishly punny title, which can’t help but reference Mike Figgis’s 1990 corrupt-cops thriller, Internal Affairs. And if the first Infernal Affairs feels heavily influenced by the cops-and-gangsters symmetry of Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), the trilogy as a whole echoes the long arc of Francis Ford Coppola’s three Godfather epics: the first chapter sees one mob leader fall and his (symbolic) son rise; the second chapter rewinds a generation to move the pieces into position; and the third chapter follows the new kingpin to his lonely, despairing end.
Perhaps not coincidentally, however, the trilogy’s most significant Hollywood inspiration also happened to be directed by Hong Kong legend Woo. The first Infernal Affairs in particular channels his Face/Off (1997) in a more realistic, less operatic key—this time with the two nemeses switching places rather than faces, and with a focus on character-driven suspense and procedural minutiae over balletic action. The violence is minimal, the storytelling rigorously spare, the action inexorably circular; it’s as if the characters were already being sucked into a whirlpool of their own making. The movie doesn’t advance so much as spin hypnotically on its axis, a narrative centrifuge whose every rotation generates both extreme chaos and a strange, terrible clarity.
The early drug-bust sequence, sprawling yet concise, offers an example of this circular momentum. A restlessly gliding camera embeds us within two concurrent planes of action: as triad boss Hon Sam (Eric Tsang Chi-wai) prepares to buy a shipment of cocaine from his Thai associates, Chen secretly relays messages from their meeting to Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-sang) via finger-tapped Morse code, while Lau, for his part, wires Sam into the action at police headquarters. Amid this precisely orchestrated symphony of flipped phones, switched channels, and increasingly furrowed brows, an ever-tightening stalemate ensues. By the end, neither side has won, but both know they’ve been infiltrated—and with both moles surely now living on borrowed time, an endgame has been set in motion. “The loser will die,” Superintendent Wong declares at a public face-off with Sam’s gang, and his words will prove terribly accurate: for himself, Sam, and—finally—Chen, the movie’s tortured but unblemished heart and soul.
Leung—who had already played a cop (in Chungking Express), a gangster (in 1990’s Bullet in the Head), and a cop pretending to be a gangster (in 1992’s Hard Boiled)—here slips into one of his finest roles with commanding ease. He is suitably roughed-up for the part, looking scruffier than usual in open-necked shirts and a black leather jacket, and sporting unkempt bangs that partially obscure his famously expressive eyebrows. But in his rare off-the-clock moments, Chen exudes a surprising lightness, warmth, and even flirtatiousness—especially in scenes with his sympathetic therapist, Dr. Lee Sum-yee (Kelly Chen Wai-lam)—that further compound the tragic weight of his personal sacrifice. Only when he meets on a rooftop with Wong, the sole other person who knows he’s one of the good guys, can he fully vent his fury at having been given an assignment that looks ever more like a death sentence. And so it is, for both of them: apart from Chen’s own death at the hands of another of Sam’s moles (in an impeccably foreshadowed twist), there may be no more wrenching moment in Infernal Affairs than when Superintendent Wong’s slain, tortured body crashes to earth—and Chen, on the scene, can barely stifle the shock, horror, and devastation that he knows, if expressed, would fatally betray him.
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