Before Martin Scorcese came out with The Departed in 2006, there was a masterpiece of a crime thriller called Infernal Affairs from Hong Kong, starring Chinese superstars Andy Lau and Tony Leung as two policemen who are living opposite yet intertwined lives — the righteous living the life of a gangster and the wicked living the life of an upright police official. The Hong Kong release was the inspiration behind the Hollywood film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, but while the US came out with a good movie, I still believe that the original was miles ahead in terms of story presentation and acting.
Ching Wan Yan is a young cadet who is “expelled” out of police training to go deep undercover in a ring of Hong Kong drug triads. He agrees to take on the mission, which was originally set for three years and maintains contact only with two police officials who serve as his handlers, one of them being Superintendent Wong Tsi-Shing (Anthony Wong). Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau) is a gang member who is ordered to infiltrate the police academy by triad leader Hon Sam (Eric Tsang) to serve as the crime group’s mole inside the police force. Throughout the years (10 years, after Yan’s assignment gets extended multiple times), both men move up higher in the chain of command, one in the underground and one in the police force. They prove to be successful in their tasks until one major drug bust where both teams score a victory against each other and it becomes obvious that each group is harboring a mole on the other’s corner. As Yan and Lau try to protect themselves from getting busted, and at the same time race to unmask their secret opponent, they tread carefully but swiftly as the situation grows more dangerous and complicated.
Casting two of the greatest Chinese actors of their generation and pitting them against each other in this game of cat and mouse, all while trying to outwit each other and deal with their own inner conflicts was a stroke of genius on the part of director Andrew Lau. Tony Leung was exceptional as Yan. He manages to sell his disposition and his mannerisms as a gangster, but in the midst of it all, there was a vulnerability in his eyes as he longs for what he has sacrificed. What will pull audiences to his character is his resolve and his pride in being a policeman (despite only one person knowing his true identity), which pushes him to compromise his safety time and again to get closer to his goal. Andy Lau, on the other hand, shows his character’s imperfections flawlessly and lets the audience in on his inner conflict about where his true loyalties lie. Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang were equally compelling as the superintendent and the triad boss who have been after each other for years, using various methods to get ahead of one another. Their contrast in their handling of their moles was also clearly shown in the movie. Whereas Superintendent Wong shows great concern about the well being of his ward, putting it above the success of the mission, Hon Sam treats his men like properties, compromising their reputations without regard for the consequences of his operations.
Compared to the Hollywood version, there was a marked difference in the undercover approach. While DiCaprio’s undercover relied on texting, Leung utilized a much more old school and less obvious approach, which was communicating through morse code. While the Hollywood version dwelled on the relationship of the underground boss and his ward, the HK film focused more on the friendship of the handler and his mole. I liked the relationship between Superintendent Wong and Yan, which reminded me of a father and son bond, although there was not much room to be overt and emotional. In the Chinese version, there was also a variety of espionage techniques utilized in the film, which was fun to watch and heightened the sense of urgency which was the general tone of the movie with the growing number of observant eyes watching every move in both the side of the good and the evil.
There is a different ending for both the Hollywood and Hong Kong endings. The Hollywood version is darker but in my opinion, the HK version is more thought provoking. What truly is the better punishment for the wicked? Check out both versions to decide but I am strongly leaning towards the original Chinese version.