Infernal Affairs

Infernal Affairs and its two sequels (2002-2003) are films that form the basis of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006).

I’ll make a confession now. When I saw the Hong Kong film on TCM a few years ago, I thought it was called ‘Internal Affairs’. My mistake persisted until a few weeks ago when I watched the trilogy (like The Matrix (1999), Infernal Affairs was rewired into two more films to capitalize on its unexpected success). I got the Netflix disks and while watching the second film, I researched it on the IMDb.

I typed in ‘Internal Affairs’ in the search and the film appeared. I had no reason to look closely at the title. I clicked on the critics reviews and the selected site showed ‘Infernal Affairs’. I returned to the list of critics and even googled the director/writer/star, Andy Lau. More of this ‘Infernal Affairs’.

Making it worse, I was reading the ‘f’ in Infernal as a ‘t’. My confusion lasted a little longer before realizing my mistake. Prodding my misapprehending the title was the fact that the Internal Affairs of the Hong Kong police play a crucial part in the films. I was relieved to have discovered my error, despite feeling like a dope. I imagined how closely I had come to writing about it as ‘Internal Affairs’.

Much of what I want to say about the films is based on my first viewing on TCM. Despite knowing how the film played out, having seen The Departed, I was caught up in the film’s intensity. The American and Hong Kong versions tell the story of two men, one from the criminal gang infiltrating the police and the other a recruit kicked out of the police academy so he could infiltrate the criminal gang. Both get deep into the respective organizations and many years pass.

The concept of parallel moles is ingenious because there’s constant sources of tension, especially in the scenes with the undercover cop and the crime boss – in the American and Hong Kong versions alike. However, I came away from Infernal Affairs believing it was superior to the Scorsese film. This is saying a lot, for me, as Scorsese is one of my “go to” filmmakers, with Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995) being the most compelling cinema in my movie universe. And I liked The Departed.

Infernal Affairs, however, had an unfair advantage. Viewing it caused me to rethink how I watch and evaluate films. I am watching essentially the same film but all the actors are unknown to me. I have nothing to rely on except the action. Despite knowing what will happen (except for a different ending), I feel the tension and am drawn strongly into the drama. It was as if I had nothing blocking my sympathies or antipathies for the characters.

When we watch The Departed, we see Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, and Anthony Anderson. An amazing confluence of star power. We are seeing less and less of the film when the known stars populate it.

I was reminded of French director Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer. He rarely used known actors. Most of his lead characters were played by non-professionals. He enunciated his view on the impact of actors on a film:

Movement from the exterior to the interior. (Actors: movement from the interior to the exterior.)

Cut what would deflect attention elsewhere.

Failure of CINEMA. Ludicrous disproportion between immense possibilities and the result: the Star System.

I have discussed Bresson in another article. I don’t want to make an argument for or against using stars. What I have found is that the absence of known actors in a film enhance a film. One of the best examples (one that I wish I could see again in a pristine state of mind) is the film Body Heat (1981) which starred two unknown actors: William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. This was a plus for viewing the steamy scenes. We didn’t “see” a Warren Beatty or a Jack Nicholson making love to a Faye Dunaway, for instance. Another example would be our reaction to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967), which depends greatly on this being his first major role.

I have watched many Japanese films and “know” only a few actors, Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, and Takeshi Kitano, and virtually no actresses. Japanese films work well for me because I can be drawn into the characters, not the actor-characters. True, the international film industry would collapse without the Star System and the little films with unknown actors (possibly on the way to becoming known) would not exist. It would be an interesting experiment to cast the Marvel films with unknowns. Would the response be as immense?

The other thing these thoughts on Infernal Affairs brings to mind is how the film, which seems almost “innocent” in its casting, is responded to the same way in Hong Kong as I was seeing The Departed. The two actors above, Andy Lau and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung are very commercially successful actors. They may be the Damon and DiCaprio equivalents in Hong Kong. In some ways, the same film becomes two or more films, depending on the viewer’s previous experience with the cast.

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