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Identity and Mistrust in “Infernal Affairs”

Peter Hechler

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.


Works Cited:

“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.

Fight the Strong, Protect the Weak (Seven Samurai Review)

Seven Samurai (1954), a film by legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, is widely regarded as one of the most influential and powerful films of its time—and perhaps there this some truth in this view. This film was made earlier on in Kurosawa’s career and helped him, along with a few of his actors, on their rise to international recognition. Driving this film in particular is its cinematography, showing themes through subtle detail, such as focus.

What kind of film is Seven Samurai? To call it merely an action movie would not do it justice, since though the plot of the film revolves around the impending action, the majority of the movie is not contained in the relatively short action sequences. The movie plays out much more like a drama, centering itself around the three main characters: Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), a young, aspiring samurai, Kambei (Takeshi Shimura), an old and wizened samurai, and Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune), a samurai of questionable legitimacy.  The actors in this film help to carry it through, with particularly strong performances from Mifune and Shimura, both of whom are known for their work in collaboration with earlier Kurosawa films, such as Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), and Scandal (1950). The synergy between Mifune and Shimura helps to keeps the two characters dynamic and engaging throughout the three-and-a-half-hour film. Kurosawa makes no mistake in keeping them in-focus, both literally and metaphorically.  Though not every scene focuses on them, and in fact, characters like Katsushiro receive a fairly large amount of screen time, Kurosawa shows their well-developed and influential characters through his camerawork whenever they are around, giving the actors the chance to show what they are capable of.

Of course, there is only so much to be said for characters in a vacuum. The film’s basic plot involves a small village, which discovers that bandits plan to attack them in a few short months. Instead of fighting by themselves or surrendering their crops to the bandits (which would mean starvation), they come up with the plan to hire some samurai to help them defend their village. They go to a nearby village and manage to convince an older samurai, Kambei, to help them, even though the villagers cannot pay more than to feed the samurai during their stay. Kambei manages to pull together a rag-tag group of samurai to ward off the bandits.

As I previously mentioned, the film doesn’t concentrate on the bandit attack that acts as a catalyst for the villagers and samurai, but rather on the characters themselves. Kurosawa weaves philosophy seamlessly into the film, making it feel natural while still holding the powerful and thought-provoking effect it is capable of. Though the bandit attack certainly moves the plot along, it ends up being more a device to tell a tale of these samurai, the farmers, and how we act under pressure, rather than being a tale about a bandit attack. The film deals with themes spanning from duty and obligation to identity and classism.

The film is very long, running 207 minutes, but nothing feels out of place or unnecessary. Every scene is needed in its own way, with many shots telling a story beyond the dialogue or action in them. As Kurosawa is known for, his use of focus helps tell the story, which we can see throughout the film. In simple conversations, such as between the samurai and the village elder, the use of focus highlights who has power and who is important to the conversation. Whereas most directors keep only one part of the shot in-focus, Kurosawa will keep several different things in the shot, perhaps actors, perhaps props, in-focus, which also highlights the fact that much of the shot isn’t in-focus. Kurosawa’s mechanical ability in filmmaking contributes to this film’s critical acclaim and international success.

Kurosawa’s samurai film strays away from the genre of action movie, and moves more towards the genre of drama. Through his masterful cinematography and storytelling methods, he weaves a complex tale with very simple origins: how we should and do react under duress. Kurosawa’s philosophy is told here in a powerful way, and every element of the film contributes to it, especially the cinematography. Anyone can understand what happens on the surface, but to truly grasp the film requires a more careful look.


Works Cited:

Seven Samurai. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Perf. Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima. Toho Company. 1954. Film.

“Seven Samurai” Internet Movie Database, 2014. 7 Mar 2014.