The glory days of slick Hong Kong crime thrillers began to dim when the great John Woo emigrated to Hollywood in the late 1980s. "Infernal Affairs," directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, revives Woo's brand of nail-biting suspense, tense showdowns and psychological intrigue between well-matched adversaries.
The charismatic stars Tony Leung and Andy Lau (no relation to the director) play a cop and a criminal working as deep-cover spies in each other's organization. When their respective bosses order them to find and eliminate the traitor in their ranks, each man tries to outwit his superiors while hiding his own subterfuge. Both spies know that they have an opposite number on the other side, but have no idea who their counterpart might be. If the plot twists twisted any harder, you'd cry "uncle."
Andy Lau, left, and Tony Leung in "Infernal Affairs"Miramax FilmsWhere this film departs from the classic Woo formula is in the matter of gunplay. Woo has become synonymous with artfully choreographed eruptions of firepower, but the co-directors of "Infernal Affairs" squeeze exquisite tension out of electronic eavesdropping devices; the moral confusion of men no longer sure where their loyalty lies, and the ever-shifting balance between deception and suspicion. The violence here is internal, as the constant pressure of undercover life shreds the men's souls, an undercurrent of anxiety that the women in their lives acknowledge in very different ways.
"Infernal Affairs" reportedly is set to be remade by Martin Scorsese, and you can see why he would be attracted to the devilishly paranoid premise.
Gorgeously photographed in a shimmering color scheme of black, whi te and blue-green, the film has a glamorous, cosmopolitan look that Michael Mann would appreciate. The casting plays no favorites, with each lead a heart-throb in his own fashion. Leung, best known here for his role as the smoldering hero of "In the Mood for Love," projects an anguished resolve as the undercover cop. Lau, the Triad gangster inside the police force, is one of Asia's top action heroes, but behind his matinee-idol looks is a fine, understated actor. When exposure looms, you can see the temperature drop in his eyes and feel the tendons tightening in his jaw.
The title refers to the Buddhist concept of the worst area in hell, the place of eternal, continuous suffering. It's a metaphor for the heroes' conflicted identities, and for Hong Kong's political predicament, its soul torn between its British-influenced history and its Chinese-dominated present. It's surely no accident that the characters' names, Ming and Yan, sound so much like yin and yang, their destinies intertwined in a never-ending conflict. "Infernal Affairs" is a beautifully crafted, exciting story that keeps on surprising you to the very end. 101 minutes Format - Subtitled in English
remark: Release by Buena Vista
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