Thoughts from John:
The best way to describe the 2002 crime thriller “Infernal Affairs” (“Wu Jian Dao”) might be to suggest that it’s Hong Kong’s answer to Hollywood’s “Heat.” Both films are psychological dramas with some elements of action, rather than outright action flicks; both films explore the nature of good and evil, pitting nontraditional good guys and bad guys against one another; and both films feature star players in the title roles, Al Pacini and Robert De Niro in Michael Mann’s Hollywood treatment of a police officer versus a criminal, and Tony Leung and Andy Lau in directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Hong Kong version of events. Both films offer gritty, no-nonsense approaches to the traditional cops-and-robbers genre, and if you liked one, you might like the other.
Before we begin, a word about the title. According to the Internet Movie Database, “Infernal Affairs” (“Wu jian dao”) is the movie’s international title, a rather corny one in my estimation, suggesting more of a romantic comedy than a tense battle of wills. The movie’s Hong Kong English title is listed as “I Want To Be You,” which doesn’t strike me as any better but at least is more descriptive. In any case, don’t let the titles fool you; the movie is as tough as they come.
The plot involves the Hong Kong police and a big-time gang of drug dealers, each of whom has planted a “mole,” a spy, in the other’s camp. The gimmick is that the two moles are themselves both officers who went to the same police academy together. They are two men of the same age and the same generation, one ostensibly “good,” the other outwardly “bad.” Yet both men, Leung as an undercover cop working within the gang and Lau as a gang member working within the police force, feel the pressure of what they’re doing. Neither man is comfortable in his position; neither man likes what he’s become.
So, this is not your usual good guy, bad guy yarn. It’s really a story about the good and evil in each of us and how different people cope with the dichotomy. Additionally, the movie is well acted, well paced, reasonably exciting in parts, and suspenseful, especially in its last half hour when the cat-and-mouse angle is ultimately played out. I enjoyed “Infernal Affairs” for being intense, and for its not pulling any punches. This is not your typical “Magnum, P.I.” we’re talking about.
I did have some reservations about the film, though. My first concern is that during the film’s two big centerpiece scenes, drug deals, one at the beginning of the film and one at the end near the climax, I had a hard time following the action. In both cases I wasn’t sure who was doing what and for what reason. But things work out if you don’t despair and just follow the scenes to their conclusion. Then, in retrospect, you have a pretty good idea of what just went down.
My second concern is about the women in the story. Each man has a romantic interest; the policeman Chen’s is a beautiful psychiatrist (Kelly Chen) who thinks Chen may be bad but falls for him anyway; and the crook Lau’s is a beautiful fiancée (Sammi Cheng) who is writing a novel about a character she can’t decide is good or bad, a situation that reflects her feelings about her intended. Yet beyond providing these additional contrasts in the story, the women play little other part. They are only seen intermittently, mostly not at all, when they might have been developed further for the sake of improving our understanding of the main characters.
My final two concerns are quibbles, really. The least is the DVD cover. It shows the faces of Lau and Leung on either side of a beautiful young woman in a tight, short jump suit, holding a gun in her hand. To my knowledge, there is no such woman in any such outfit holding any such gun in the movie. So the cover seems designed only as an attempt on Buena Vista’s part to sell discs. Seems beneath them.
The more serious of the quibbles has to do with the movie’s translations into English. You get to choose a dubbing or subtitles or both. I chose both. I would normally prefer subtitles only, but what with trying to watch the movie, read the subs, and take notes, I thought it best to listen in English and have the subtitles, too. Here’s the problem: The subs and dubs most often don’t match. Now, I can understand the need to fit words to an actor’s lips even when they don’t translate literally, but, I mean, here we get things like “Mom” and “Dad” reworded differently. An actor says one thing in the English dub and the English subtitle says something entirely opposite? Most of the time, these discrepancies can be overlooked because they don’t affect the meaning of what’s going on, but in a few cases if I hadn’t had the subs, the dub would have taken me in a whole different direction. Just a minor caution.
The Buena Vista engineers appear to have done just about everything they could to reproduce the best possible picture, utilizing a high bit rate, a transfer that is claimed to be enhanced for 16×9 televisions, and a widescreen ratio measuring approximately 2.13:1 across my high-definition television, a ratio that closely matches the movie’s 2.35:1 theatrical-exhibition size. Yet the image still does not look anything like state-of-the-art video to me. Part of this I would attribute to the original print: the occasional minor grain, the overly dark areas, the glassy, glossy sheen, and the subdued, iron-hard colors. But what of the continual instances of jittery, rippling lines, moiré effects? These ripples look like the result of a typical non-anamorphic transfer to me, so maybe the box announcement about the film being “enhanced” is incorrect. I don’t know. The colors, while not too vivid or deep, are nevertheless realistic, and combined with the overall dark approach they are probably intentional on the directors’ part in creating a steely hard atmosphere for the film. Object delineation is the transfer’s strong suit, however, and in this area there is little to fault.
The sound, Dolby Digital 5.1, holds its own. The deepest bass is decent; the front stereo spread is more than adequate; the dynamics display a solid impact; and the surrounds reproduce the noises of doors closing, golf balls hit, and gunshots fired with appropriate realism. The audio is also smooth and well balanced, so you won’t hear any screeching from the musical accompaniment. It is good, modern audio all the way around, if not sensational, “Star Wars” sound.
There are not a lot of extras on this disc, but several items stand out. The first is a fifteen-minute featurette, “The Making of Infernal Affairs,” that gives us a glimpse into the filmmakers’ intentions in creating the movie. It’s not too comprehensive, but it does give one an idea of what the director was up to. The second is a six-minute featurette, “Confidential File: Behind-the-Scenes Look at Infernal Affairs,” which shows us some of the inner workings of the film’s shooting. It’s more of a technical exercise than anything else and should appeal to anyone interesting in the mechanics of filmmaking. The third item is an alternate ending that would probably please more viewers if it were used, but it softens the story’s outcome. Also of note are two widescreen theatrical trailers, one the original Chinese and one made for the international market. The interesting part is that while the original trailer is the same ratio as the feature film, 2.13:1, the international trailer measures a much wider ratio of 2.50:1. The extras conclude with eighteen scene selections; Cantonese and English spoken languages; English and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Parting Thoughts from John:
“Infernal Affairs” is a welcome relief from the usual kung-fu hijinks and mass battle scenes of so many Hong Kong action movies, its emphasis on mental and emotional drama rather than on pure combat and killing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys in real life, and thus it goes in the movie. The leads, Leung and Lau, are more than credible, their characters’ concern and outright anguish registering as nuances rather than scene stoppers. Yet despite the film’s accent on interior conflict, it moves along at a healthy clip for its entire running time and contains enough action to remind a person that this is not, after all, an Ibsen stage play. Finally, I appreciated the filmmakers’ conviction to keep the story as gutsy as possible. The film doesn’t flinch.
Thoughts from Eddie:
I’ve been preaching from the Chinese-language pulpit a lot these days, and there’s no reason to stop sermonizing since I’m writing about yet another Chinese movie. The title “Infernal Affairs” is a catchy one, but it doesn’t convey what “Wu Jian Dao” means. “Wu” means “no” or “none”, “jian” means “space” or “room”, and “dao” means “way” or “path”. Therefore, “Wu Jian Dao” can be translated as “No Way Out”, though “Wu Jian Dao” is usually associated with Buddhist writings about “continuous” or “perpetual” hell. The title refers to the movie’s characters being trapped in their nightmarish undercover missions. (“Inferno Affairs” would’ve made for a good English-language title, lol.)
As John already noted, “Wu Jian Dao” echoes 1995’s “Heat” (directed by Michael Mann). “Wu Jian Dao” also reminded me of 1970’s “Le Cercle Rouge” (directed by Jean-Pierre Melville). Both “Infernal Affairs” and “Le Cercle Rouge” begin with Buddhist quotations, and both have titles that refer to Buddhist concepts about the turmoil of earthly existence. As you can see, the concept of the existential crisis is not exclusive to the West.
Examining dualities has been a reliable way of introducing conflicts–internal and external–into stories since who-knows-when. Therefore, it’s true that the basic premise in “Wu Jian Dao” is nothing special. Yet, the movie manages to convey a hard-bitten romanticism that makes alienation powerfully emotional and just a tad glamorous. When the movie’s characters fall to the ground after being shot, they look as if they’re swooning. Yet, this stylishness never lessens the impact of the movie’s sense of despair and sadness.
The movie is only about ninety-minutes-long (minus opening and closing credits). It really should’ve been much longer in order to give the female characters added dimensions. This is something that “Heat” did better than “Wu Jian Dao”–showing how cops and criminals’ professions drastically affect the women in their lives. During their brief time together, Tony Leung and Kelly Chen develop an obvious rapport even though they don’t often appear in the same frame (despite their faces being only inches away from each other). More screen-time for Kelly Chen (as Yan’s psychiatrist) would’ve meant heightened emotions during the movie’s final moments.
SPOILER: The little girl is Yan’s daughter. This is inferred by the movie when her mother lies about her age in order to prevent Yan from guessing that he could be the father. “Wu Jian Dao 2”, which is a prequel to “Wu Jian Dao”, confirms this when it shows the back story of Yan and his daughter’s mother.