by James Crawford

Infernal Affairs
Dir. Wai Keung Lau/Siu Fai Mak, Hong Kong, Miramax

Culminating this Christmas, North American cinemagoers will have witnessed a distribution oddity: the release of three movies from Hong Kong and mainland China in major chains like Loews and AMC, and outside of the usual art-house cinemas and repertory ghettos. Zhang Yimou's 2002 epic Hero, a Rashomon-like wonder amongst the dregs proffered at summer's twilight, was distributed under the Miramax banner at the end of August 2004, and House of Flying Daggers, Yimou's eagerly-awaited epic will be one of the behemoths squaring off during the holiday season—the first time an Asian flick has done so since Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in Christmas 2000. Alan Mak and Andrew Lau's Infernal Affairs, which had a 2002 Hong Kong release, was unfortunately sandwiched in the abandoned wasteland of September releases a few months ago. An opportunistic Hollywood distribution network seeking to capitalize on Quentin Tarantino's success with his homage-heavy brand of martial arts is responsible for this confluence of Asian films playing on major screens near contemporaneously, but this happy glut is not necessarily all positive-the singularity of focus means popular audiences are made aware of only one specific type of Asian cinema. In considering these films, let's borrow some deductive reasoning from Sesame Street: one of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn't belong.

Crouching Tiger, Hero, and Flying Daggers are all of the sumptuous period-drama, elegant wire-fu (kung-fu choreography made otherworldly acrobatic by flying the actors across the screen attached to wire harnesses) sub genre, an alliance of gorgeously saturated palettes, dance-like marital arts and camera setups heavily derivative of the Hollywood musical. The entire Infernal Affairs trilogy—shown in a grueling day-long affair at the 42nd annual New York Film Festival—has been hailed as a masterful marriage of the gangster and the police procedural film that radically reconfigures each genre. More accurately, it's a really clever revision and extension of familiar story tropes with some beautifully deft performances from its male leads, but it falls somewhere short of Zeitgeist-level revolutionary power. It's a noir-ish (that is to say bluish) gangster series of flicks, resolutely grounded in the near-past (1997 and beyond), brandishing gun play as its sine qua non, with a visual commitment to slick camera work and brutally provocative, shocking violence. With Tony Leung and Andy Lau starring, Infernal Affairs has a similar acting pedigree as Zhang Yimou's films, but it ended up unfairly limping through theaters, presumably because it didn't present the epic-sized chop-socky that Western audiences have come to expect.

In the first film of the trilogy, Chan Wing Yan (Tony Leung) is a Hong Kong policeman kicked out of the training academy, only to be picked up SP Wong (Anthony Wong) and, unbeknownst to the authorities, planted as a mole in the infamous Hong Kong crime gang, the Triads. Yan's quite a successful plant, and he eventually becomes something of a right hand man to the Triad boss. There's nothing truly revolutionary about this story line, nor the subsequent, inevitable mole hunt-see Donnie Brasco, Mission: Impossible, etc. But where Mak and Lau really, shake things up is in saddling Yan with a doppleganger. Ming (Andy Lau) is also a mole: he's been instructed by the Triads to infiltrate the police force to help the gang elude capture, and Lau becomes as deeply entrenched in the cops' world as Yan has in the Triads. In a superb stroke of narrative economy, the two moles engage in a chess-match of deception, Yan alerting the police of the Triads' movements while Lau informs his gang of the law's whereabouts. In a moment of double consciousness, each becomes aware of the other's informants, so the chase is on to uncover not one, but two identities in the space of 100 minutes.

The basic premise alone is fraught with tension, and Mak & Lau build upon that with narrative discourses and structures that serves to heighten audience anxiety. In a film like Donnie Brasco, the anxiety of Brasco being unmasked as a mole is relieved by the intercalary scenes where Brasco confers with his superiors. The audience gets no rest in Infernal Affairs because the police are themselves infected by undercover intrigue. Not only is there the potential for a revelation of Ming's identity or the potential that Ming will never be unmasked, but the anxiety that the police chief will confide in Ming the identity of his own infiltrating informant Yan, thus betraying him to the Triads (or indeed that Yan will accidentally give himself away). Visually, this edgy emotional state is reinforced because in nearly every quasi-voyeuristic shot, with a subjectivity tied to those seeking to uncover the truth. Shown through the eyes of people who are “looking,” both literally and figuratively, for the identity of their respective moles, every reverse shot, with its promise of visual recognition, is a potential moment of discovery. There's aural violence too: otherwise innocuous cell-phone rings are amped-up to eardrum popping levels, and equally loud gunshots appear from offscreen space unannounced, shocking spectators whose nerves are already frayed to the point of unraveling. Combinatorially, there are two outcomes for each protagonist (Ming caught/not; Yan caught/not), meaning that there are four different ways the film could end.

All of this operates on the level of pure narrative technique, but there are some higher thematic stakes at play-forays into metaphysics that don't always work. Most obviously, its opening allegorical salvo-Buddha describing eternal, inescapable hell and constant suffering inscribed over the titles-is meant to apply to both Yan and Ming, but Yan is the only one actually condemned to any kind of anguish. In the trilogy's first film at least, Ming lives the gangster idyll, with a gorgeous wife, a luxuriously appointed apartment, and the security of being in the police chief's inner circle. Yan is relegated to purgatory without true friends, family, or material comfort, a ten-year sentence made interminable when the only one aware of his true identity is killed. Their characters are meant to be dialectical poles, with Yan's thesis opposed by Ming's antithesis, only to be resolved on a higher plane where the two men share the same sympathies. However, the relationship falls apart because imbalances in suffering undermine the apparent symmetry. The renunciatory, uplifting climax where Ming expresses a desire to reform his past, an ending that is designed to complete the process of dialectical sublimation, feels half-heartedly tacked-on and out of keeping with the enduring pessimism found in the film's remainder.

Mak and Lau work better when trying to up the tensile ante in a metaphysical-free fashion, engaging the considerable talents of their two actors. With Leung's baleful, wide eyes playing off Lau's narrow hawk-like features, there is a considerable power imbalance between the two, paradoxically with the field tilted towards Mak's criminal. In the police procedural, of which Kurosawa's High and Low is the platonic ideal, the film follows the detectives' machinations as they slowly close the net around an offending criminal. In a brilliant inversion, Infernal Affairs shows the noose tightening around Leung's neck as the Triads seemingly get closer to uncovering him. As that possibility becomes more likely, Leung's face becomes more deeply and tragically entrenched with furrows of sorrow and outright pain, while Lau's haughtiness ascends in equal measure to his mounting higher echelons of power and privilege. Captured through distorting fisheye lenses and set against a background of warped windows that reflect the world in unequal, surreal proportions, this is a world out of whack. The crooks can seemingly get away with anything.