Films We’ve Watched: Infernal Affairs (2002)

5 Nov

Note: This was originally written as the program notes for this film when it was shown by the Austin Film Society at the Alamo Drafthouse on August 28.  It can also be read on their website:

The worst of the Eight Hells is called Continuous Hell. It has the meaning of Continuous Suffering. Thus the name.” – The Buddha

This very quote about the Continuous Hell, or Avici Hell, is the first thing the viewer sees at the beginning of Infernal Affairs.  It’s also the last thing shown to the viewer at the end of the film.  The initial Hong Kong audience would have immediately recognized its significance, as the original title of the film translates to “Non-stop Way”, a reference to the lowest level of Hell, in which life both starts and ends in the same place.

According to Buddhist belief, beings who have committed the most grievous of acts can be born into Avici Hell upon their reincarnation.  Avici Hell is different from most other planes of existence, and even other levels of Hell, because once someone is reborn there, they will continue to be reborn there for countless millennia, if not eternity.  It is a place of unending suffering, reserved for those people who have accumulated so much bad karma that the “Non-stop Way” is the only path toward paying it off.  A bleak concept to be sure, but one that resonates perfectly with the trapped characters of Infernal Affairs.

The story of Infernal Affairs centers on two men.  Chan (Tony Leung) is a cop who has been undercover in a triads gang for around ten years.  Meanwhile, Lau (Andy Lau) has also been undercover, but as a police officer, while actually working for the triads.  Both of these men have been living double lives for so long that they are no longer sure who they really are anymore.  And as their real lives and their work identities become more and more blurred, they are each pushed closer and closer towards their breaking points.  All of the film’s action hinges on what is happening in the minds of Chan and Lau.

This inner struggle and physiological intensity was extremely unusual for a Hong Kong film in 2002.  Hong Kong was (and is) known for it’s high action, large explosion, tough guy cinema.  But by the early 2000s, box office numbers were plummeting, and many were wondering if the Hong Kong film industry was on its way out.  This opened the door for innovative directors like Andrew Lau and Alan Mak to try some new things.

And in this case, this thoughtful and powerful action film seems to have come from some very unlikely sources.  Andrew Lau seems to have wanted to make a police drama, emphasis on the drama, to the point of refusing to add more action scenes when the producers requested it.  Meanwhile, Alan Mak drew inspiration from John Woo’s film Face/Off.  So, out goes some of the action, in comes the drama, identities are switched, social norms are disregarded, and Infernal Affairs is born.  By the time the film was finished, the two directors had created something that’s very existence gave its audience almost as much pause as it’s characters and twisty-turny plot do.

And against all odds the film succeeded.  Almost singlehandedly, this film revitalized the Hong Kong film industry.  And the accomplishments didn’t stop there.  Martin Scorsese went on to remake the film as The Departed, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay (based on the screenplay co-written by Alan Mak).  It seemed that nothing could stop this police story from Hong Kong.

We will end with the concept we started with.  The concept that begins and ends the film.  The idea of getting yourself into such a horrible situation, that everything you do just proliferates it and pushes you further down the path.  The thought of actually living the “Non-stop Way” is horrifying, but it weaves a web that is fascinating to watch play out on the screen in front of us.  And Andrew Lau and Alan Mak defied the odds and created a film that allows us to do just that.

– david

(Terrible trailer, but at least you get a feel for it.)



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