Thursday, August 08, 2013

Infernal Affairs Trilogy & Hard Boiled

A quick four film spotlight on Hong Kong Crime films which focus on informers and undercover operatives.

Hard Boiled (1992, John Woo)
Infernal Affairs (2002, Wai-keung Lau, Alan Mak)
Infernal Affairs 2 (2003, Wai-keung Lau, Alan Mak)
Infernal Affairs 3 (2003, Wai-keung Lau, Alan Mak)

This spotlight is meant to expand on an almost five year old post "The Art of the Informer" which looked at key characteristics of informers while reviewing Mukhbiir (2008, Mani Shankar) and included other examples such as Drohkaal (Govind Nihalani), Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell), Infernal Affairs & its remake The Departed. From the opening paragraph of that post:


1. a person who informs against another, esp. for money or other reward. 
 2. a person who informs or communicates information or news; informant. 


1. a person employed by a government to obtain secret information or intelligence about another, usually hostile, country, esp. with reference to military or naval affairs. 
2. a person who keeps close and secret watch on the actions and words of another or others.
3. a person who seeks to obtain confidential information about the activities, plans, methods, etc., of an organization or person, esp. one who is employed for this purpose by a competitor: an industrial spy. 

Informers and Spies are old as human civilization. For whenever a great power (be it a nation or an empire) existed, there were people who utilized informers or spies to find ways to bring down that power. While the terms spy and informer are used interchangeably quite often, there is a subtle difference between a spy and an informer. A spy might employ multiple informers at any given time but an informer is always alone on the lowest rung of the intelligence ladder. One can call an informer the tiny particle that quietly resides in the nucleus of an organization, quietly observing the dance of the electrons and those other highly charged particles. An informer gathers whatever valuable piece of information they can and then has to find a way to relay that information to others on the outside. Now this is not to say that a spy cannot become an informer. From time to time, a spy would have to go undercover on their own and embed themselves within an organization and act as an informer. In fact, some spies might even have graduated from the level of an informer. Another difference between the two would be related to the transmission of information. The informer provides concrete information, something that they have heard or seen. Whereas, spies also engage in the game of misinformation whereby they circulate some lies from time to time to either cause a reaction or to even fish out the truth. The spread of misinformation also has the danger of a "blowback" when the misinformation results in reactions that have dangerous consequences. For example, Steve Coll's book Ghost Wars hints at how misinformation might have contributed to some of the mess that resulted in the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, a mess that is still to be sorted out. 

Through the years, films have been packed with plenty of worthy examples of informers. Titles such as Govind Nihalani's Drohkaal, Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco, Wai-keung Lau & Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed come to mind. In Drohkaal and Donnie Brasco, police get an informer to break through a terrorist cell and a mafia gang respectively as those are the common settings found in most informer films. But the genius of Infernal affairs was that it simultaneously showed informers existing both in the police world and the mafia gang, thus resulting in a brilliant calculated game of chess. In a way, Infernal Affairs took the complicated world of international espionage and adapted it to the street level of informers.

Hard Boiled is remembered for its gun action sequences but it nicely lays a path for Infernal Affairs with regards to an informer's isolation. Tony (played by Tony Leung) is so deeply embedded within the gangsters that he starts to lose his identity. He is isolated like all the other cinematic informers before him and is grateful when he can finally reach out to inspector Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat). Unfortunately, Tony Leung’s Yan has no such luck in Infernal Affairs. After spending almost 10 years in isolation, Yan is relieved that he can finally get his old identity back and be a cop again. But instead, he finds multiple informers on the police side. It is this opposing set of informers that ensures Infernal Affairs leaves a lasting impression as the story puts an informer on both police-gangster sides creating a challenging minefield of trust and decision making. Of course, such two ways games are the basis of international spy games but in those cases, the information is often manufactured on the basis of lies and misinformation. But in the case of Infernal Affairs, the moves are made in real time on concrete information which gives each opposing side just split seconds to make a counter move. Morse code is the method by which Yan can get his info to police chief SP Wong (Anthony Wong) as this old communication is still a reliable way to avoid detection in an era of electronic eavesdropping, phone tapping and data packet sniffing. This means the opposing informer Inspector Lau (Andy Lau) has to be alert at all times for the smallest clue he can find.

Anthony Wong’s character is the father like figure to Yan and the only trust worthy person that Yan has in the police force. In a flip role reversal, Anthony Wong plays the mafia boss in Hard Boiled and is the spitting image of Sam (Eric Tsang) from Infernal Affairs. Even though John Woo’s film is a longer action oriented film focusing more on bullets, birds and body counts, it is deeply tied to Infernal Affairs especially with regards to the key roles played by Tony Leung and Anthony Wong’s characters.

In terms of the Infernal Affairs trilogy, Infernal Affairs 2 is chronically the first film in the series followed by Infernal Affairs & Infernal Affairs 3. Although, Infernal Affairs 3 also contains scenes which take place just before Infernal Affairs thereby making the film a prequel to Infernal Affairs and also a sequel to both Infernal Affairs 2 and Infernal Affairs. So this is a more realistic order of events:

Infernal Affairs 2 
Infernal Affairs 3 
Infernal Affairs 
Infernal Affairs 3 

Infernal Affairs 2 does a very good of tying events with the original Infernal Affairs making it a perfectly crafted prequel. This is down to the same directorial and writing combination (Alan Mak, Felix Chong) who at the start of Infernal Affairs give a quick flashback on how the two informers are recruited and grow into their roles. The young actors shown in this flashback (Edison Chen, Shawn Yue) get the main roles in Infernal Affairs 2 and as a result, the prequel flows with the original and nicely compliments the story. Unfortunately, Infernal Affairs 3 stands out from the pack as an unnecessary addition as it does not provide any relevant material expect providing a final resolution for Inspector Lau's (Andy Lau) character. The third film also uses the same actors and has the same directorial/writing team but the sub-plots diverge from the original story and struggle to provide tense moments like the first two films.

Related Reading

David Bordwell’s excellent essay "No coincidence, no story" is vital reading as it expands on a key scene in Infernal Affairs.

Also, his discussion of The Departed is worthy reading as well.


Sam Juliano said...

I certainly have high regard for HARD BOILED and THE KILLER (especially) among Woo's work, and much appreciate this scholarly treatise, and the link to a writer I hold in the highest esteem: David Bordwell.

Sachin said...

Thanks again Sam. It was a trilogy I wanted to finish for a long time so it was nice to finally get around to it.