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When they accepted their Oscars last month, the makers of The Departed thanked Andrew Lau, Alan Mak, and Felix Chong, the creators of Infernal Affairs, the 2002 Hong Kong hit from which Martin Scorsese’s movie was derived. But the three probably weren’t thanked enough. Though scripter William Monahan added lots of profanity, and Jack Nicholson gave the sort of ostentatious, star-turn performance that’s thankfully rare in Hong Kong film, The Departed is astonishingly faithful to Infernal Affairs. It’s not quite a shot-for-shot remake, but the deviations from the original are modest and mostly inessential. The big difference—stop here if you haven’t seen The Departed—is that both of the principals don’t die at the end of the original film.
That explains how co-director Lau, co-director and co-writer Mak, and co-writer Chong were able to make two Infernal Affairs sequels. Bought and then buried by Miramax after a short New York run in 2004, Infernal Affairs has been available on video for several years. But only hardcore American Hong Kong–cinema buffs have seen the follow-ups, which are much better than typical Hong Kong movies with the numerals 2 or 3 in their titles. Though the third one is pretty nutty, the sequels retain much of the appeal of the taut, morally complex original. The AFI Silver is offering an opportunity to see all three films, including a marathon triple bill on Friday—too much of a dark, bloody thing, perhaps, but the first two movies are highly recommended, and the third is very entertaining in its feverish way.
Infernal Affairs is the tale of two moles: Twinkly eyed Yan (Tony Leung) is a cop who’s been undercover for 10 years, ostensibly working for Sam (Eric Tsang), a gray-haired gang boss. Meanwhile, cocky Ming (Andy Lau, who is not director Andrew Lau) is working as a policeman under hard-driving, rule-bending Inspector Wong (Anthony Wong) but secretly reporting to Sam. Yan and Ming become aware of each other’s existence, although not identity, and search for their counterparts as their respective organizations also try to catch them.
Discussing the sequels requires revealing the ending of the first film: Yan is shot dead just as he thinks he’s about to escape his gangster role, and Ming decides to accept his guise and become a cop for real. None of this, it turns out, is relevant to the plot of Infernal Affairs 2, which is a prequel. Divided into three chapters set in 1991, 1995, and 1997, the movie concentrates on Sam and Wong, who maintained a sort of friendship before Sam overthrew his boss and became a major crime lord. The younger Yan and Ming—played by Shawn Yue and Edison Chen, respectively—both appear, and the latter has a crucial, if not central, role. Unlike the first film, which balances suspense with contemplation of the psychic cost of doing evil, the second one emphasizes the sweep of history. (It ends with Britain’s handover of its colony to China.) Yet it’s also a dynamic action flick, notably during an intricately intercut sequence of the simultaneous assassinations of three gang bosses.
Infernal Affairs 3 is actually two films in one, and it would have been more coherent if it had been split in two. The film reunites Hong Kong stars Leung and Lau, and a knotty structure is required to put them together after one of their characters dies. To pull off the trick, the film jumps between 2002, when Yan is still alive, and 2003, when Ming is trying to avoid being exposed as a former mole. The first plot elaborates on Yan’s playful relationship with police shrink Dr. Lee (Kelly Chen) but also spins an elaborate yarn about a mysterious mainlander (Hero’s Chen Dao-Ming) who’s arranging a secret arms deal. In the other story, Ming worries that Inspector Yeung (Leon Lai) knows about his past. Dream and fantasy sequences amplify the confusion, fracturing the narrative until it resembles a 1960s Alain Resnais scenario. The film’s string of epilogues also has an avant-garde tang, suggesting a story that could circle itself forever.
The Infernal Affairs trilogy is well within the boundaries of the Hong Kong gangster film, as delineated by such directors as John Woo and Johnnie To, as well as Lau and Mak themselves. But its repeated references to Buddhist thought, as well as its expanding web of relationships—thematic as well as personal—demonstrate its intelligence and ambition. The result is crackling entertainment with powerful undertones of destiny, obligation, and personal integrity. By comparison, The Departed is just a genre film.