The Chinese title of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s 2002 film Infernal Affairs references the Buddhist notion of the “Unceasing Path,” which is the lowest level of hell. Souls sent to this horrifying abyss, known as Avīci, suffer for eternity without much hope of relief. In that sense, the application of Avīci is particularly appropriate for this entertaining crime thriller.
Much of Infernal Affairs concerns concepts of individuality, adding an intricate layer in the face of what is superficially a fascinating Hong Kong police procedural. There are twists aplenty, but it’s the concision and efficiency of narrative that pulls the material deeper. Martin Scorsese remade it as The Departed in 2006, of course.
Andy Lau stars as Lau Kin-ming, a member of the Triads who has infiltrated the Hong Kong Police Force. He is working for boss Hon Sam (Eric Tsang). Tony Leung is Chan Wing-yan, a Hong Kong Police Force officer working undercover in Hon Sam’s gang. He is working for Superintendent Wong Chi-shing (Anthony Wong).
Both sides play their moles to their advantages, with the cop and robber game growing more refined by the moment. Both sides are aware of the inside men, although they aren’t sure of their respective identities. This becomes a chess match between Wong and Hon, at least until the game becomes even more dangerous.
Chan only reports to Wong and has little to no contact with the world outside of the Triads. One scene finds him meeting a former flame (Elva Hsiao) and discovering that she’s moved on, with a kid (who may be his) and a husband. Life has moved on for so many people, but he’s spent the last 10 years without an identity to call his own. It’s an all-consuming fire.
Lau is in the same boat. He makes busts with the cops and impresses his superiors, moving up the ranks and ultimately landing an agreeable post in Internal Affairs. This gives him access to even more information, including the goods on who the undercover is. When he’s confronted with this choice, he must examine his true nature.
This notion of intelligence and information is often the stuff of crime and spy thrillers, but few films ask questions about the moral and mental costs with as much detail as Infernal Affairs. Lau and Chan are pawns in the same game, but when the real players are out of the picture they start to jockey for position. They search for belonging.
Chan has asked to be removed from the field. Many times, in fact. He expected to spend three years with the Triads before returning to some devalued veneer of normal life. But he’s the best and Wong insists, pushing him longer and harder. Chan isn’t sure where the Triads end and the police begin. Or vice versa.
Infernal Affairs doesn’t spend much time on subplots, even though there are romantic teases. Chan has a relationship with a therapist (Kelly Chen) that basically amounts to him dreaming about her while he catches some shuteye in her office. He’s not overly interested in excavating the beast within, which adds a further dimension to his character, and his affections can only run so deep.
Conversely, Lau tries to start a life with his fiancé Mary (Sammi Cheng), but she struggles with who he is. She’s a novelist, writing about a man with several identities. A tear falls when she determines that she can’t see the man in front of her and Lau has yet another choice to make. She may speak almost entirely in double-meanings, but that’s part of the efficiency of plot. There’s not a wasted moment.
These complexities never feel too elaborate and that’s the appeal of Infernal Affairs. It handles its winding road with ease. Lau and Lai Yiu-fai’s cinematography slickly captures the byzantine nature of Hong Kong, itself a “ceaseless path,” and the performances follow suit. Lau and Leung are marvellous actors, able to communicate so much with a modest adjustment in expression or body language.
There have been many cop pictures to handle the idea of the “mole,” but few tackle the matter of core identity like Infernal Affairs. This is big budget, polished Hong Kong filmmaking and it shows in the glitz and skill of what’s on screen. But it’s more than the average blockbuster. It’s a picture that digs in, undaunted to take those all-important first steps along the “Ceaseless Path.”