In the fall of 2002, the extent to which Hong Kong's film industry had fallen from its heyday was revealed by some startling and dire statistics. Between 1993 and 2001, the number of films produced in Hong Kong fell from 242 to 126, while box office sales dropped from $227 million US to $103 million US. As a result, funding for new productions has dried up dramatically, while revenue-starved exhibitors are slashing the price of movie tickets. The reasons for the crisis are many, including the successive economic recessions that have battered the former British colony, as well as rampant piracy that makes first-run films available from street peddlers within days (if not on the same day) of theatrical release. In addition, industry observers have cited increased competition from foreign films, singling out Hollywood and South Korea as leading the charge.
But despite the picture of doom and gloom, there are still some indications that the Hong Kong film industry still has some life left in it. In 2001, Stephen Chow's "Shaolin Soccer (Siu Lam Juk Kau)" broke box office records, while "The Eye (Jian gui)" from the summer of 2002 was an exceptional horror film. Released in December of 2002, "Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao)" is the latest film to challenge the assumption that Hong Kong cinema is dead. Featuring an all-star cast led by Andy Lau ("Full-time Killer") and Tony Leung ("In the Mood for Love"), and slickly directed by Andrew Lau (whose voluminous filmography includes "The Storm Riders" and the "Young and Dangerous" films), "Infernal Affairs" is a thoroughly enjoyable and tension-filled cat-and-mouse crime-thriller.
The film opens with a big boss named Sam (Eric Tsang of "The Accidental Spy") sending off his youngest lieutenants to infiltrate the Hong Kong Police Academy. This is part of a long-term strategy aimed at keeping tabs on what the long arm of the law is up to. Ten years later, one of Sam's would-be spies, Ming (Lau), is now a sergeant in the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau and he is secretly undermining the efforts by Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong of "Time and Tide") to bring down Sam's crime empire. However, what Ming doesn't realize is that Wong has infiltrated Sam's organization with a mole of his own-- Yan (Leung), a cop who has spent the past decade working his way up to Sam's number-two man.
Events kick into high gear during a tense sequence in which the police try to thwart one of Sam's drug deals. As the deal goes down, Yan secretly transmits the details to Wong while Ming sends coded messages to his boss keeping him apprised of what the police are up to. Though the bust ends with a stalemate, both sides end up realizing that there is a mole in their respective organizations. Thus, the undercover cop and the undercover criminal become caught up in trying to identify each other while keeping their own identities secret.
For those moviegoers expecting John Woo or Tsui Hark-style pyrotechnics, the gunfights are actually few and far between in "Infernal Affairs". Thankfully, the low action quotient is more than made up for with a great script and strong characters. Unlike most films in the Hong Kong cops-and-triads genre, "Infernal Affairs" is an intelligently plotted thriller oozing of subtlety. The two main characters, Ming and Yan, despite being on opposite sides of the law, are very similar in that they both find themselves trapped by their circumstances. While Yan wants out after having put ten years of his life on hold to infiltrate Sam's gang, Ming secretly wishes to become a real cop and leave his triad days behind him. In fact, Ming ends up being the most fascinating and complex character in the film, as his desire to turn over a new leaf compels him to commit new crimes in order to bury his past ones. Thankfully, Lau is up to the task in the role of Ming, playing a character with far more subtlety than most of his usual roles.
"Infernal Affairs" is also a change of pace for director Andrew Lau, who shares directing credits with co-scribe Alan Mak. It is difficult to believe that this is the same director responsible for such forgettable films as "Wesley's Mysterious File (Weisili zhi lan xie sen)" and "Dance of a Dream (Oi gwan yue mung)". Lau does almost everything right in this film, from the pacing, the editing, to the striking cinematography (which was supported by 'visual consultant' Chris Doyle).
However, if there is a complaint to be made about "Infernal Affairs", it would have to be in the supporting performances by Cantopop singers/actresses Sammi Cheng ("My Left Eye Sees Ghosts") and Kelly Chen ("Tokyo Raiders") as the respective love interests of Ming and Yan. The script really doesn't give them much to do, other than give them suspect occupations (Sammi is writing a screenplay about multiple personalities, while Kelly is a psychiatrist) and their inclusion in the film seems to be more of an afterthought.
In addition to breaking box office records in Hong Kong and becoming a highly sought-after VCD/DVD release, "Infernal Affairs" touched off a bidding war in late January of this year among most of the major Hollywood Studios, including DreamWorks, Paramount, and Columbia. In the end, Warner Brothers inked the deal after paying a hefty $1.75 million US for the film's remake rights, which will be produced by Brad Pitt ("Ocean's Eleven"). This is of little surprise, as "Internal Affairs" is certainly one of the best films to come out of Hong Kong in a long time. If the rest of the Hong Kong film industry can create films of equal depth, intelligence, and calibre, then I'm sure that Hong Kong cinema will be around for a very, very long time.
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