Infernal Affairs is a fast-paced action film directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. Released in 2002, the blockbuster has received significant critical acclaim and financial success. The Hong Kong movie deals with the competing forces of good and evil in society shown through the competition between the Triads and the police. Existing within this structure is Yan, an undercover cop who infiltrates the Triads, and Lau, a Triad mole who enters the police force. This dichotomy evolves throughout the course of the movie and rather than personalize the rivalry, it is shown to be greater than the main protagonists. In order to keep the moral divide in a big picture context, the Triad boss Sam has a similar competition with Wong, the police chief. Lau and Mak deliberately chose to keep the moral divide on a grand scale above the main characters. Sam and Wong act as patriarchs, this generational element adds a feeling of timelessness to this battle.
One of the best scenes to represent this rivalry is when Sam is arrested and sitting in the police station right after a busted drug deal. The Triads are carefully placed behind him to mirror the police that stand with Wong. The two groups are on opposite sides of the table to allow the viewer to compare them and see how the distance that separates them is so much more than simply the table. This is when both Wong and Sam admit to having placed a mole within the ranks of each other’s groups. As Wong and Sam look over their own men suspiciously, the camera pans along the faces of both the Triads and police. At this point, the viewer must consider the fact that even though there is a great deal of moral difference between the police and the Triads, they appear to be basically interchangeable. Outward appearances are deceiving in this movie, especially when discussing the true nature of characters.
Lau and Yan both struggle to find their respective places within this structure that has been so clearly defined. While Yan, played by Tony Leung, has a firmer grip on his identity, being undercover for so long takes a toll on him. Early on, Wong chastises him for the assault charges he commits while with the Triads. One of the areas where the film falls short is that it often tells the viewer what has happened rather than show them. It would add much to the movie if Yan was seen committing these crimes. However, the fact that he slips into criminal activity shows the degree to which he enters the immoral side of the structure. This appearance has very little to do with his true identity because while Yan commits crimes like snorting coke at the drug deal, he remains fixed as a cop and is really the moral compass of the movie.
His rival Lau, played by Andy Lau, is the Triad mole inside the police department. His internal conflict over his place within this moral structure is portrayed both by the excellent acting of Andy Lau and key points in the movie. For example, Lau’s obsession with his badge and the fact that he keeps holding and touching it represents him toying with the idea of permanently being a police officer. His character lacks an ethical code and this allows for his identity to be in flux throughout the film which ironically leads to significant success in his life. Lau quickly ascends through the ranks of the police and is shown to be upper class specifically in his style of dress, he typically wears expensive suits. Lau’s immorality works to his advantage in the police when he poses as a lawyer in order to deceive the Triad gang member. This is a victory for the police which Lau accomplishes by acting like a criminal. His ambiguous nature allows Lau to choose where he wants to exist in the moral divide between good and evil which makes him all the more interesting and engaging.
Andrew Lau and Alan Mak successfully combine powerful thematic questions concerning morality and the individual’s place in society’s moral structures with an entertaining and dramatic action movie. There is a careful balance between the character development of the main protagonists and scenes of violence and action to keep any audience captivated. The quick entrance and exits of certain characters, specifically the love interests, can be jarring to the viewer. The female characters do not grow or perform much function within the narrative; while this can be seen as a conscious decision to keep the story from becoming too focused on the personal lives of the characters, I find that it weakened the film. The female roles could have provided a more interesting dynamic when interacting with their male counterparts rather than being little more than eye candy. Despite this fact, the internal hell of the protagonists, specifically Lau, is masterfully displayed as he operates within these two opposing structures. His identity and the universal moral implications of Lau’s story make for a great experience for any viewer.