Infernal Affairs (official site), made and set in Hong Kong, tells the story of two cops, Tony Leung (not the other Tony Leung) and Andy Lau. It opens when their characters enter police academy from diametrically opposed backgrounds, leading them to diametrically opposed directions. I don't want to reveal more because your viewing will suffer if I do. What follows is a breath-taking, fast-paced cat-and-mouse game with a unique twist, a story that has not been seen in Hollywood or HK/Asian cinema to date.
Infernal Affairs was wildly popular in Hong Kong and spawned a well-received prequel and a reportedly inferior sequel. It broke almost all box-office records for a local movie, was hailed by critical acclaim and it received a ridiculous amount of awards. It is considered to be one of the driving factors in the return of Hong Kong cinema, along with the hilarious and original kung-fu spoof Shaolin Soccer and the funny and poignant - but not contrived - Golden Chicken.
Hong Kong had a serious slump in the box-office success and quality of locally made films in the late Nineties. It has always had a prolific movie industry which is revered by the people and has stars as huge as Hollywood has. Hong Kong cinema has its big-name exports as well, from the director John Woo to several actors (the ubiquitous Jackie Chan, kung-fu prodigy Jet Li and bullet-ballet god Chow Yun Fat) to fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping of Matrix fame. Hong Kong cinema was thrown into further disarray as the territory was handed over to the Chinese after one hundred years of British rule, which precipitated a slew of problems and tensions in the society which was already suffering from the raveges of the Asian Meltdown of the mid-Nineties. Despite rumors of censorship and some timid financiers, producers, directors and writers, Hong Kong cinema has awakened once again, releasing quality movies with universal appeal. Infernal Affairs is a prime specimen.
Infernal Affair's main stars are well-established in HK and have an impressive career although they are only in their early forties. Tony Leung starred in one of the best movies of all time, Yimou Zhang's ethereally beautiful Hero, as well as Hard Boiled and Chungking Express, another movie that had a theater run in the west. Andy Lau is known as an actor and a singer in Hong Kong. You might have seen him in Fulltime Killer or As Tears Go By, just two of the over one hundred films he's been in. His iconic status in Hong Kong is evident when he played himself in Golden Chicken mentioned above, a movie which might be considered to be a dissection of what the people of Hong Kong feel about themselves and Hong Kong in general. Both leads do an amazing, understated job in Infernal Affairs, and while their characters do not interact much, you feel there is a spiritual connection between them reminiscent of the relationship between the leads in Michael Mann's brilliant Heat.
Infernal Affairs has a strong supporting cast with the stalwart Anthony Wong (probably best known in the west for his supporting role in the Jackie Chan vehicle The Medallion) playing the police commissioner and the incredibly versatile Eric Tsang as the triad boss, nicely contrasting his loser-mugger role in Golden Chicken. The lesser roles are also nicely written and acted, most notably the beautiful Kelly Chan as Tony Leung's character's shrink who doesn't get to do much therapy.
But by far the strongest point of Infernal Affairs is in writing and directing. Co-director Wai Keung Lau is best known for The Storm Riders and the Young and Dangerous series. Siu Fai Mak, second director and co-writer, and co-writer Felix Chong are newer HK personalities whose work I have not had the opportunity to witness. The seamlessness of writing and directing is evident when you realize most producers with this much happening in the movie would make a 150-minute movie instead of the 100-minute Infernal Affairs is. The writing is incredibly concise without being hurried. There are several plot-twists that make you feel like you're on Top Thrill Dragster. It's paced almost perfectly, which is even more impressive as HK flicks often suffer from pacing problems. The characters are rendered brilliantly, and the plot unravels in just the right rhythm, keeping you guessing until the very end without giving away too much at any point. That might sound like a cliché, but when you realize how often that is promised and how often delivered, the reality sets in.
Now, Infernal Affairs is not perfect. People familiar with East Asian films know that directors don't lay everything out for the viewers; they don't hold your hand but let you come to your own conclusions. You really have to pay attention, especially in the first minutes of the film. If you don't, you will be brought up-to-speed in due time, though. The film is in Cantonese, so people who are not used to reading subtitles might have slight difficulties following it. And there is a couple of montage-like scenes which are somewhat confusing until you've seen the whole movie or are used to MTV-paced cuts. Some plot twists which a Hollywood producer wouldn't dare to try are a feature of Hong Kong cinema, not a fault.
Other than those minor issues, Infernal Affairs is a true masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema. While it doesn't surpass the pure perfection of Hero and A Bullet In the Head, it easily trumps most any film that has come from within and out of Hong Kong in the past ten years. It's a prime example that Hong Kong is back at the forefront of world cinema. If you like cops-and-robbers movies, foreign films or thrillers in general, you won't be disappointed. I'm sure Infernal Affairs has a lot to offer for others as well, being well worth the investment to order online, for example from here (note: region 3 DVD) or the entire trilogy here (note: region 3 DVDs which are claimed work in region 1 DVD players). And since there is a Hollywood remake on the way, with none other than Martin Scorsese directing Brad Pitt and Leonardo di Caprio, this is your chance to get to see the Real Thing before Hollywood butchers it and hypes it to death.