The general moviegoing public only appear to recognise the foreign name above a title when it is the title of a movie made in the US. Despite filmographies as successful in their Hong Kong markets as Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li or Michelle Yeoh, Infernal Affairs stars, Andy Lau and Tony Leung, could probably walk around London, Paris or New York without being disturbed, despite the fact that at least one of their features are internationally released every year.
It certainly isn’t a matter of personality, looks, talent or accessibility. The only reason why Lau, the magnetic lead of films that western audiences have embraced like Fulltime Killer (2002) and God of Gamblers (1987), isn’t a household name outside South Eastern Asia is that he has not left his home country, where filmmakers as diverse as Wong Kar Wai and Tsui Hark still ply their trade. The same could be said of Leung, a mature-before-his-years romantic lead, whose biggest UK releases would still be John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992) and various starring roles for Wong Kar Wai. The rare exception to this rule is the Japanese star Beat Takeshi, who is the selling point of all his films. Yet Takeshi rose to worldwide recognition as an arthouse director and even he has appeared in US films (Johnny Mnemonic  and his own Brother ). Lau and Leung have never left their indigenous audience and therefore lack the global cachet of their peers.
Given this, western audiences will probably be quite underwhelmed by the fact that this thrilling little cop and mouse story is the Hong Kong equivalent of Edward Norton and George Clooney going mano-a-mano. Brad Pitt certainly saw the potential in this huge domestic hit, as he snapped up the rights before it even toured the European festival circuit. Which role Pitt will take is somewhat insignificant as this is the tale of two polar opposites who share the same situation and attitude. It is not that the parts are interchangable, but both detective and criminal are hunter and hunted, making the dramatic arcs they follow deliciously similar. Both are moles placed by the triads and/or police to keep tabs on the opposition; both are abandoned behind enemy lines with each other’s death as the only chance of survival. It is a situation where performance and star power keep the storyline’s complexities comprehensible. Luckily Lau and Leung, for all their actorly aptitude, can also fill a screen and command an audience’s attention.
For a fresh serving of HK cinema the surprise isn’t the blistering action sequences – on the whole Infernal Affairs is rather subdued – but the battle of wits between this pair of iconic heroes. Based in a world where information is paramount, the antagonists proceed to tap into and cut off each other’s lines of communication. This is a tale that truly embraces Hong Kong’s precarious position in the age of the information superhighway. Since the handover to China, Hong Kong has seen its technology markets diminish, but its economy is still reliant on international commerce. Hong Kong has to try and live up to the same role with different resources – much like the trapped but inventive characters of Infernal Affairs. Technology is not always key either. One extremely edgy set-piece revolves around morse code being tapped out on a window. The fact that the police task force’s headquarters evoke a Microsoft conference room hints at the technology-driven age era that Infernal Affairs strikingly represents.
Infernal Affairs is not particularly groundbreaking nor spectacular, but it allows its stars to breathe and perform in a straightforward genre piece. The police procedural has been poorly served in Hong Kong since The Killer (1989), and in the US, the genre has been largely ghettoised to TV, where even sterling efforts like NYPD Blue (1993 onwards) and more experimental works like The Wire (2002) have hankered for big screen outings. The pressures of the work place, the grind and thrill of the investigation create great drama onscreen. And when you get a performance like Leung’s ingenious turn as the undercover man who has been ‘in’ too long, it makes for such a human, memorable character, one has to wonder why our own directors and stars are so cautious of returning to the genre. Perhaps if non-arthouse audiences became more accustomed to the world of actors outside Hollywood’s pull, they would experience the wider range of intelligent entertainments countries like Hong Kong have to offer.