Infernal Affairs (2002) risks losing its audience in its story almost as much as the main characters risk losing themselves in what they do. From directors Andy Lau and Alan Mak comes a film about identity and acting. And of course, a film about acting puts heavy reliance on its actors. Luckily for Infernal Affairs, this trust is well-placed, as the actors definitely carry the film. Audiences seemed to agree that it was a success, as the film has received critical acclaim not only in Hong-Kong, where it was made, but also internationally.
Infernal Affairs is the story of two men: one who is a deeply undercover cop working under a gang leader and one who is the exact opposite—a man who is a mole for the same gang, working in the police force. They are both given the same task: they are to find the traitor in their ranks and deal with him. Whoever finds the other first, will undoubtedly win, and as the film itself notes, whoever loses, dies.
From here on out begins a tale of espionage, centering on these two characters. The film starts at fast pace and continues to build, with violence always looming overhead. In a tale of false identities, it is critical that the actors do their job as well as they do. Tony Leung, known for Hero and In the Mood for Love, plays the part of Yan, the undercover cop. Andy Lau (separate from the director, Andrew Lau), known for House of Flying Daggers and The Warlords, plays the part of the gang mole, Ming Lau. Their actual dialogue tends to show very little of what they actually think, as most of it is in their roles. For example, toward the start of the film, we see the police trying to bust the gang for drugs. Both of the main characters are working for their respective sides and neither is in a position for much dialogue. And yet, this is one of the more telling scenes, as they show who they’ve become as adults outside of training. Almost no words are exchanged during this scene. However, it is precisely through their non-verbal acting and careful words that we see who they are. Though we know who they supposedly are at the start of the film, the question of identity remains throughout the film, and if you think you’ve got these characters figured out, then you had better finish the film.
While Infernal Affairs does deal with gangs and police forces and has a lot of violence, it takes much more after a film like Goodfellas, rather than The Godfather. A danger of many films in the gangster genre is the idea of glorifying this underworld, which Infernal Affairs does a good job of avoiding. Instead of working within the underworld and making some of them seem like heroes, Infernal Affairs shows the kind of ambiguity that we see in Goodfellas, where the world is incredibly harsh, yet far from black and white. Henry Hill and Jimmy Conways’ characters from Goodfellas are much closer to those in Infernal Affairs than those of Michael and Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. Yet Infernal Affairs never takes the perspective of a character like Henry Hill’s in Goodfellas. And as there is no inner monologue, our access to these characters is done purely through how the actors themselves show these characters on camera.
Of course, the actors alone do not make the film. A good actor will never reach his or her full potential without good direction. In the case of Infernal Affairs, there are two directors: Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, both of whom are now known for the Infernal Affairs movies in particular. However, Andrew Lau has done extensive work as a cinematographer and photographer, and Alan Mak was a relatively new director at the time, who also has received credits on the Academy Award-Winning adaptation of Infernal Affairs, The Departed. Their combined efforts yielded a strongly directed and beautifully shot film.
All in all, Infernal Affairs is a film about identity, who you are and who you choose to be. It takes the form a fast paced gang-thriller, but to stereotype it by genre would be to judge a book by its cover, which would be a grave mistake here. The acting and character development brings this film to life, engaging the audience in a very relatable way.
“Goodfellas” Internet Movie Database, 2014. 8 April 2014.
“The Godfather” Internet Movie Database, 2014. 8 April 2014.
“Infernal Affairs” Internet Movie Database, 2014. 8 April 2014.
Infernal Affairs. Dir. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. Perf. Andy Lau, Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Anthony Wong, Chau-Sang. Media Asia Films. 2002. Film.