Monday, December 31, 2012

Movie Monday #18: Infernal Affairs

“Do all undercover cops like rooftops?”

--Andy Lau as Lau, Infernal Affairs 

I am not that hip when it comes to the Hong Kong movie scene, and for good reason -- I just don’t get the pacing and the plotting of most Chinese films.  I guess I’m too used to Hollywood car chases and explosions that, admittedly, my favorite Hong Kong film for years was John Woo’s Hard Boiled, mostly because of Tony Leung’s performance in the film.  Last Saturday night, I had the pleasure of taking in another great Tony Leung performance, and a terrific film altogether -- Infernal Affairs, directed by the upcoming team of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak.

The basic story behind this crime thriller is simple -- two cadets rise up quickly through the ranks of the Hong Kong police force, but end up taking separate paths.  Yan (Tony Leung) is “thrown out” of the academy so he can become an undercover cop within the Triads, China’s form of organized crime.  What he and the other cadets don’t know is that Lau (Andy Lau), an ace cadet with perfect marks, is a plant within the police department with loyalties to the Triads.

I was a little surprised that the movie let the big secret out from the get-go, but then I realized just how smart that was.  It screwed up the tension and the anxiety ten times more than they already were, and from that point, the movie proceeds to embellish the characters a bit.  Yan has been undercover for ten years and has been arrested three times for assault of an officer, and his boss, Superintendent Wong (the great Anthony Wong in a stone-cold serious role for a change), orders him to see the department shrink.  Lau, on the other hand, finds himself ordered to locate the mole that’s recently been discovered within the department (which is, naturally, Lau himself) and work directly for Internal Affairs, while still helping Sam (Eric Tsang), the Triad boss he’s loyal too, get his criminal enterprises underway.

If this sounds familiar, it should -- Martin Scorsese ripped off the story of this film to make his cop thriller The Departed, with none so much as a credit to Andrew Lau and Alan Mak as the originators of the story.  But the similarity between the two films pretty much ends at the whole mole here/mole there point in the story.  Yan starts to fall in love with the department psychiatrist, while Lau has one of his underlings tail Superintendent Wong to a meeting with Yan.  This results in the turning point of the story -- the Triads invade the building, and Yan and Wong are trapped.  Yan escapes, but Wong is thrown from the roof and onto the top of a taxicab, some twenty-five floors below.

And like some of my other reviews, I’m going to stop before I get ahead of myself and reveal the entire movie to you.  This is one Hong Kong thriller I’m very proud to say isn’t out to disgust you with gut-punching violence, confuse you with some symbolism that only the director understands, and offend you with gratuitous language and nudity.  Infernal Affairs, despite it’s name and the sexy Chinese woman who appears on the cover of the DVD (who isn’t even in the movie, I came to discover), is a very clean and crisp film that keeps you on the edge of your seat and includes some definitive jaw-dropping moments.

Andy Lau and Tony Leung are the standout performances in this film, though I felt that Lau’s was stronger, because his character goes through the most change.  Leung was still enjoyable and affable as always (that scene when he says he dreams of the psychiatrist and she responds with the sweet ‘I dream of you too’ was extremely well-played), but I felt like the directors were setting him up for a fall throughout the film and not giving him a chance to even try and be a hero.

This film also guest-stars one of my new favorite Hong Kong actors, Edison Chen, who I first saw as Ryousuke in the Initial D live-action film.  Edison plays the young version of Lau’s character, and many of the flashbacks to his cadet days feature Chen.  In my opinion, this is a bright young man with a bright future in cinema, whether it be foreign or domestic.

The production design, in combination with the lighting, is just superb in this film.  The use of white, black, gray, green-gray, blue-gray, and natural lighting really set this off as something that says, “Take notice of me.  I am not to be ignored.”  There are a lot of rooftop scenes in this film, and how they covered and lit them when there’s really nothing around to mount a camera on or plug a camera into is a testament to the Hong Kong film industry’s ingenuity in getting things done.

Overall, this is one film I’m proud to have in my collection, and I found it at the local Blockbuster store in the clearance section of their previously viewed movies for $3.99.  If I can find it there, surely you can find it through similar means.  I encourage you to do so, even if you’re not a fan of Hong Kong cinema, because this film just might change your mind -- it did mine.

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