Come to Hong Kong and find yourself. Just don’t get caught.Â
After five years of building up his gang and getting it whittled down by cops, Sam has come up with a novel idea. He will send seven or eight young men with clean records to the police academy, where they will try to become legitimate cops. They will inform for him not just for money, but out of Triad loyalty. One of these young me is Lau. At the same time that Lau is starting to train, a young man named Ming gets expelled from the academy. Lauâ€™s training officer heaping scorn and insults upon him as he leaves. Neither Lau, nor the training officer realize that Ming has just been assigned a three-year undercover mission. In fact, only two other people know that he is still a cop.
As Ming rises from petty hoodlum to actual gangster, Lau is rising through the ranks, doing good police work while sneaking information to Sam. There are points where Lau and Ming actually cross paths, and Lau arrests Ming at least once, but they do not appear to remember each other. Mingâ€™s three-year assignment somehow gets longer and longer. By the time the story proper begins, Lau and Ming have both been undercover for ten years, with Ming having spent the last three working for Sam. Got it?
The story begins with the funeral for a senior member of the police force, and one of the only people who knew about Ming being undercover. That leaves Superintendent Wong as the one person who knows. Ming has become frustrated and angry. He has been in deep cover longer than Donnie Brasco and Wong is concerned about his short temper and assault charges? Wong warns that he could erase all traces of Mingâ€™s status as a cop if he does not properly distinguish between acting like a criminal and being a criminal. Ming counters that he might as well wear his badge around the gangsters. With that argument not settled, the two get to the real reason for their secret meeting. Sam is buying a boatload of drugs from a Thai gang this week. Ming does not know where the deal will take place or where the drugs will go once Sam gets them. Wong says that Ming can retire after this, but Ming scoffs at himâ€¦and then scoffs at the mike that Wong gives him. Then Wong gives him a watchâ€¦apparently, Ming forgot his own birthday.
Lau and his team of cops have just managed to take down a gangster named Brother Mo when they are tasked with taking down Sam during the meeting with the Thais. Wong is leading this operation. Lau manages to warn Sam before the meet takes place, but too late for Sam to cancel the meeting. The cops have to hold back until the drugs arrive boat, but they are hiding everywhere outside the meeting place. What follows is a tense fourteen-minute sequence where Sam and Wong try to outwit each other as Lau and Ming quietly relay secret messages back to their respective bosses. At one point, Lau realizes that Wong is receiving Morse code messages and quickly tells Sam that there is an undercover cop in his gang. Sam calls his minions at the beach to throw all of the drugs into the water right before the police swarm in and arrest everyone. So it is a lose-lose for everyone. Sam just lost thousands of dollars worth of drugs, and Wong cannot put Sam in prison. They have a little chit chat at the police station, with their respective teams present, and pretty much tell each that they each know of the mole that the other one had planted. Now it is just a matter of finding out who is the otherâ€™s mole first. Of course, Lau and Ming are at the front of this hunt to unmask the other while trying to cover their own tracks.
The premise of opposing spies in a crime drama may seem like a bit of a stretch, but it kind of feeds into a sense of karmic balance and retribution. You put a spy in someone elseâ€™s gang, of course that person has put a spy in yours. At the same time, this movie plays it completely straight; there is no talk about how much of a coincidence it is or the heavy-handed irony of it all; everyone just does their job. However, both Lau and Ming struggle with the nature of their jobs. Ming sees no end in sight to his undercover stint and, while he can be cool and calm in gangster mode, he is just miserable and surly when talking to Wong. Lau seems to have become a good cop and good leader, and his somewhat annoying fiancÃ©e uses her suspicions of his inner turmoil for the basis of her ludicrous-sounding novel about a man with two-dozen personalities. It is a story of secrecy, of identity, of loyalty, of putting oneâ€™s destiny in the hands of others. It is also a story of suffering. The original title of the movie was a reference to the lowest level of Hell in Buddhism, where suffering is unceasing. I guess that there wasnâ€™t a proper pun in there.
This movie was such a hit that a prequel and a sequel were released in 2003. They are both unnecessary and overcomplicate the storyline, but they are pretty good regardless. The combined total of their box office did not match that of the first movie, by the way. Martin Scorcese remade the movie in 2006 with The Departed. It was fifty minutes longer than the original movie, perhaps because he needed to add more backstory, a few elements from the two other movies, and a whole lot of swearing. It is also said that Scorcese replaced the Buddhist undertones of the original with Catholic undertones, but I will let a film expert with more theological expertise than I have deal with that.
Infernal Affairs is a very interesting take on the Cops vs. Criminals movie. Its stylishness and commitment to the story and characters transcends a concept that could have been hard to take seriously otherwise. I highly recommend this one.
WTF ASIA 89: 19-Nineteen (South Korea: 2009, approx. 100 minutes)
WTF ASIA 90: Pratidwandi (India: 1979, approx. 105 minutes)