Released in its native territory to tremendous success in 2002, "Infernal Affairs" draws liberally on Hong Kong's proud melodramatic gangster film tradition, particularly the pioneering work of John Woo in which the crucial dividing line is not the one separating the cops from the crooks but the honorable from the dishonorable. It's common in such films to find friend and foe honor-bound to the same aims, even as brothers are turned against one another. The twists offered in "Infernal Affairs," however, take the genre to enthralling new heights, guaranteeing that any future such efforts will have an entirely new bar for which to aim.
Longtime industry icons Tony Leung and Andy Lau star, respectively, as Chan Wing Yan, an undercover police officer who's spent years earning the trust of the mob, and Lau Kin Ming, a Triad mole who's invested just as many years rising through the ranks of the police department's organized crime unit. More than simply pawns in a nefarious chess game between the hard-nosed supervisor of the organized crime unit (Anthony Wong) and a slippery Triad boss (Eric Tsang), the two men become virtual players themselves as each tries to uncover and uproot the other.
In a fascinating shift, "Infernal Affairs" is all but devoid of the action set pieces typically associated with Hong Kong gangster films. There are no operatic shootouts, no high-octane car chases, no bruising fistfights -- just rich characterizations, brilliant plot twists and thick suspense. A handful of violent outbursts are fierce but brief, lasting only long enough to move the story forward to the next riveting complication. In a dramatic departure from the stylistic indulgence of directors like Woo, Ringo Lam and Johnny To, "Infernal Affairs" places a greater emphasis on plot and story mechanics, a genre first for a Hong Kong film of this type. That does not mean, of course, that Hong Kong screenwriters are adopting Hollywood ways -- conversely, the script by co-director Alan Mak and Felix Chong is careful to not wallow in its own cleverness. For all its tricked-up narrative gymnastics, "Infernal Affairs" is still very much a classic Hong Kong character piece, obsessed with the scarred psychologies of individuals who would and could immerse themselves in a contrary lifestyle for the sake of principle, honor or even simple greed.
The first in a series of three films (followed by a prequel and a kind of semi-sequel) co-scripted by Mak and co-directed with reigning Hong Kong mega-director Andrew Lau ("The Storm Riders," "Young and Dangerous"), "Infernal Affairs" has already sparked considerable hope for a long overdue turnaround in the declining fortunes of the Hong Kong film industry. Fortunately for audiences, any specific gratification to be gleaned from this formidable effort is much more immediate. Starring Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang. Directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. Written by Alan Mak and Felix Chong. Produced by Andrew Lau. A Miramax release. Thriller. Cantonese-language; subtitled. Rated R for violence. Running time: 101 min