2/4, 2000s, Alan Mak, Andrew Lau, Crime, Review

Infernal Affairs

Amazon.com: Movie Posters 27 x 40 Infernal Affairs: Posters & Prints

This movie is just too shallow. It very much has its fans, but I think this is a good example of many audience’s preference for plot over any other element of narrative. For me, plot is the least important element used in building a story, behind character, theme, and style. For many others, plot is all that really matters, moving people from one story beat to another until the resolution. I find that kind of storytelling thinly enjoyable at best, hoping for anything with any real meat on it to chew on emotionally or intellectually. Infernal Affairs isn’t only plot, but it is largely just plot. So, the twists and turns were amusing the first time I saw this movie fifteen years ago, but without more character work to consider on subsequent viewings, the whole package becomes more rote and less thrilling.

Hon Sam is a crime boss in Hong Kong who takes some of his most trustworthy youngest gang members and has them enlist in the Hong Kong police force. Most particular is Lau Kin-ming who ends up the most promising of the rising bunch. On the other end is Chan Wing-yan, a young police recruit given an undercover mission to infiltrate gangs by Superintendent Wong, kicked out of the program as a ruse and sent into the lion’s den. Ten years skip by, and Chan is watching an electronics store when Lau comes in looking for a sound system. This is their only direct interaction until the ending, and it’s a nice moment as the two moles share a love for sound equipment and music together. It also comes back later.

After this, the movie simply propels forward at a fast clip. Sam is meeting some Thai contacts to buy drugs, and the cops, led by Wong, already have the place under surveillance. Lau is in charge of the electronic surveillance and passes word along to Sam about police radio frequencies that Sam listens to on an earpiece. Chan is there with Sam, passing along details to Wong through morse code as he taps on a window. Sam and the Thai drug dealers get away, but it becomes obvious to both sides that there’s a mole somewhere in each organization.

Chan fears for his life and meets with Wong after Lau has been tasked with finding the mole in the police department, knowing that Wong will meet with the mole in Sam’s organization, and Lau has Wong followed. This scene ends up perfectly encapsulating my problems with the movie as a whole. Chan, Wong, and Lau are the barest minimums of characters, so Lau’s decisions feel perfunctory, Lau’s fear feels thin, and Wong’s death falls flat. The fact that the movie then goes into a sappy flashback sequence into Wong’s handful of scenes from earlier in the film feels funny rather than sad. It’s all quite well plotted, but the thinness of the characters makes the actual emotional impact of the event miss the mark. It’s thin.

With his main contact in the police force dead, Chan is lost until Lau picks up Wong’s phone and calls him. Lau convinces Chan to work with him to take down Sam in a parking garage. Why Lau does this is murky at best, but I guess it has something to do with Lau’s girlfriend being a writer, basing a new book on him, and telling him that she doesn’t know if the protagonist is a good guy or a bad guy. That sort of stuff doesn’t really add depth to characters. It’s the sort of thing you add to a scene to highlight character work that’s already come before it, and it’s usually kind of awkwardly added in because the filmmakers think that audience didn’t catch the entire point of a character’s journey. Here, it’s pretty much the meat of his turn.

The movie’s denouement ends up falling flat as well for a lot of the same reasons as Wong’s death. The characters are so thin with so little attention to the actual emotional journeys they’re on that when things turn good or bad, there’s little investment. The plot is intricate and works without holes, which is good, but without any characters with any depth, the whole affair becomes tedious over time because we’re just waiting for the next mechanical cog to turn without feeling like real people are driving these decisions.

The film was also the first of a trilogy with more story to come in later films (which I’ve never seen), and that becomes frustrating in parts. Chan runs into a random woman on the street that he hasn’t seen in seven years with her daughter who is six years old, but she says that the girl is five, the movie implying that the girl is Chan’s daughter. What does any of this mean? Well, tune in for the sequel to find out, I guess. That doesn’t help this movie, though. Lau’s girlfriend is also a nothing of a character, suddenly getting all flustered at Lau’s double life that she doesn’t know about specifically but can assumedly sense the reality, but because she’s barely a character and her scenes with Lau are so short, we have to trust that any of this makes sense. Her big emotional moment ends up falling flat, like most of this movie’s emotional moments.

I sort of understand this movie’s appeals. The plot is well built and executed. However, nothing else about this movie works very well. It looks fine but unspectacular. The acting is fine but based on characters that are exceedingly thin. It’s an amusing little movie that doesn’t carry the emotional weight that it thinks it does.

Rating: 2/4

1 thought on “Infernal Affairs”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s