Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Continuous hell is pretty cool

directed by Andy Lau
starring Andy Lau (a different one!), Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang

(Note: Although this movie was released in Hong Kong in 2002 and followed in rapid succession by two sequels, all of which are currently available on DVD, it played in L.A. for the first time this past weekend at the AFI film festival. It is unclear whether Miramax has any plans for wider release, although an American remake is said to be in the works. Boo Miramax!)

The central conceit of “Infernal Affairs” is at once brilliantly simple and simply brilliant. A Hong Kong gang honcho called Sam (Eric Tsang) sends several young recruits to infiltrate the police force by entering and training as cadets. One of them, Lau, quickly rises to the top of his class. Meanwhile, a bona fide cadet in the same academy, Yan, is chosen by police superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong) to go undercover and infiltrate—you guessed it—Sam’s gang. Years later, their paths cross when the police nearly seize a transaction between Sam and some Thai dealers. The police tip comes from Yan (Tony Leung), who’s become Sam’s right-hand man; the tip-off to Sam, from Lau (played by Andy Lau, not to be confused with director Andy Lau), now an officer working directly under SP Wong. Both Sam and SP Wong figure out that each has planted a mole within the other’s ranks, and each instructs his own mole to discover the identity of the other.

The possibilities of this premise are endless, and director Lau exploits both its inherent symmetry and its inherent tension to create a tautly paced, smartly underplayed thriller about dual identity multiplied by two. In one of the movie’s best moments, a confrontation between Wong’s task force and Sam’s gang following the failed drug bust, the scene at first calls to mind a game of chess, with all the black-shirt pawns on one side and all the white-collar pawns on the other—until a pregnant pause explodes into a single, sudden gesture of violence (a rhythm that recurs in later, climactic junctures). In that moment, as the two bosses call each other on their respective moles, we realize for neither the first nor the last time that the parallel storylines of Yan and Lau are really part of an infinite loop. (The title of the movie is a clumsy translation of the Buddhist concept of "continuous hell," a torment reserved particularly for traitors.) Later, in another terrific sequence, Yan catches a glimpse of Lau conferring with Sam and trails him down a shadowy Hong Kong-noir alley, only to be called back by his own boss—at which point Lau, who knows he’s being followed, starts following his follower.

The obvious idea here is that we can’t clearly separate pursuer from pursued, cop from gangster, insider from outsider, any more than they can. Each has spent so long in disguise that his sense of identity has become blurred. In searching for each other, they're also searching—with equal urgency—for themselves. But while the blurring between the two is thematically perfect, emotionally it’s somewhat unbalanced. Not that the movie probes particularly deeply into either man’s internal conflicts: all we know is that Lau doesn’t show signs of any—though his otherwise-oblivious girlfriend is writing a novel about a man with 28 personalities (hint, hint)—and that Yan is seeing a psychologist without telling her much of anything. Yet the haggard Yan is infinitely more poignant than the clean-cut, impassive Lau—partly because of Leung’s wonderfully haunted eyes, which he used to such harrowing effect in films like “In the Mood for Love,” partly because of his personal connection with SP Wong, who cuts a far more sympathetic and compelling paternal figure than his oily criminal counterpart. As it is, both Yan and Lau appear to be cultivating purely instrumental relationships with Sam, while Lau’s attitude towards Wong is opaque at best. The movie might have been stronger if it had established more grounds for divided loyalties.

There’s a twist, of course, but it’s ultimately a silly twist that does nothing to advance our understanding of either adversary. In fact, it may leave many viewers feeling cheated in the latter regard. Fortunately, “Infernal Affairs” doesn’t rise or fall by the convolutions of its plot, but rather by the mirroring of its two central characters. And that has rarely, if ever, been so neatly executed.



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