The Hong Kong skyline is one of the most distinctive in the world. And like the use of American cities by Hollywood, the Hong Kong film industry has never been shy about celebrating the rich diversity of its surroundings. Nowhere is this more prominent than in the crime film. Whether it’s the explosive action of a John Woo thriller, or the existential angst of an assassin roaming the streets in Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels, Hong Kong is as atmospheric a location as any set-designer could dream up. With the release on DVD of Infernal Affairs, audiences have another chance to see one of the best examples of the use of Hong Kong in a film that stresses the importance of the city and the energy it possesses, as much as the complex characters it portrays.
A cat and mouse thriller par excellence, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s film pits Tony Leung against Andy Lau, and in the process blurs the boundary between good guy and villain. Leung plays a cop who has been undercover in triad gangs for so long he no longer knows which side he is really on. Meanwhile, Andy Lau’s cop actually works for the same gang boss who employs Leung, but is feeling more at home on the side of justice. When each side discover there is a mole amongst their ranks, the race is on to uncover and dispose of them, before they have time to report back on the identity of their counterpart. Not since Face Off has a thriller attempted to pull of such a complex web of deceit and second-guessing.
Unlike Woo’s high-octane actioner, Infernal Affairs’ strength lies in its unwillingness to erupt into a gun battle through the streets of Hong Kong. In fact, it is the film’s almost complete lack of action that marks it out as one of the best thrillers of recent years. It succeeds in building suspense, then sustaining it, before racking up a few more twists, on its way to the stunning finale.
With such high calibre actors and the steely gaze of Chris Doyle’s camera, which does for Hong Kong what Heat did for LA – drawing out the metallic surfaces and applying a dull sheen to the innumerable glass edifices – Lau and Mak’s film is a near perfect entertainment. Never predictable and almost rising above the strain of sentimentality fails to work internationally (and which marred many of Woo’s early films), Infernal Affairs is a fine thriller that Martin Scorsese’s mooted Matt Damon/Leonardo DiCaprio remake may have some difficulty in beating.
The DVD comes with a limited number of extras. The making-of featurette reveals little by way of insight but contains entertaining interviews, mainly with the actors. Chris Doyle’s lack of input is particularly disappointing. The collection of out-takes and extraneous footage also offer little. More interesting is the directors’ commentary, which ranges from the reasoning behind the opening credits to the use of location photography across the Hong Kong skyline. The best extra is the alternative ending. Inferior to the actual ending used, it highlights the skill of the directors in making the most of the complex narrative.