During the title sequence of Infernal Affairs , the camera navigates through a series of angry statues and fire. The sequence culminates with a Buddhist proverb, “The worst of the Eight Hells is called Continuous Hell. It has the meaning of Continuous Suffering. Thus the name.” It is from this description the movie gets it's name [The Unceasing Path, in Chinese] and tells us a lot about the two main characters.
The film then quickly introduces us to Lau Kin Ming [Andy Lau], a mole planted inside the police force by the crime boss Hon Sam, and Chan Wing Yan [Tony Leung], an undercover cop who has infiltrated Sam's gang. A short montage provides us with everything we need to know about our characters. We are also meet Hon Sam [Eric Tsang] and Superintendent Wong [Anthony Wong], the two bosses on opposite sides of the law. Each boss knows the identity of their informant and that they have a mole in their midst. And with that, we begin a tension-filled chess match. Both sides moving their pieces to isolate and identify their opponents secret weapon. Both agents trying to avoid being caught while working to draw out their counterpoint.
Lau and Chan are both reluctantly living double lives, and it’s starting to wear on them. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak do a good job subtly showing the pain and angst each man suffers pretending to be someone else. They’ve been undercover for ten years, and the psychological toll has the characters looking for a way out. But neither can do anything until they help their respective bosses find the traitor on their team. Lau and Chan are on parallel, yet diametrically opposed paths. Their lives have become the never ending hell referred to at the start of the film. The performances of Leung and Lau anchor the film. Infernal Affairs does not dwell on backstories or romantic relationships, so the directors rely on the actors to convey the tortured psyches of each character with silent glances and facial expressions.
One of the major differences between Infernal Affairs and The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s English language remake, is the pacing. The Chinese film is relentless. This neo-noir feels like traditional cat-and-mouse chase except with each side taking turns being the hunter and the hunted. The screenplay is stripped down to the essential elements, moving quickly between action sequences with little exposition—which is a shame because the film is beautiful and could have lingered on several shots [Andrew Lau was a cinematographer before sitting in the director’s chair]. But the pace helps to build and maintain tension as each side races to catch the other’s mole. And the script respects the audience’s intelligence, skillfully doling out pieces of the puzzle for those paying close attention.
It’s hard to write about how much I enjoy this movie without spoiling the ending. But it suffices to say it’s surprisingly deep and emotionally involved. We are left to think about each character’s motivations and future. What’s left for the men who have spent years pretending to be the opposite of their real nature? The fast pace and full of tension, Infernal Affairs is a fun ride that gets better and rewards with subsequent viewings.