in Criterion Month

Infernal Affairs (2002)

One of my guiding principles in life comes from John Hodgman, who after toying with this idea for years laid it out in his book Vacationland:

Nostalgia to be a toxic impulse. It is the twinned, yearning delusion that (a) the past was better (it wasn’t) and (b) it can be recaptured (it can’t) that leads at best to bad art, movie versions of old TV shows, and sad dads watching Fox news. At worst it leads to revisionist, extremist politics, fundamentalist terrorism, and the victory-in Appalachia in particular-of a narcissist Manhattan cartoon maybe-millionaire and cramped-up city creep who, if he ever did go up to Rocky Top in real life, would never come down again.

But even Hodgman admits that nostalgia feels good. So I’ll come out and boldly admit: there’s a lot of Eighties and Nineties a e s t h e t i c that I’m really into. Movies like Chungking Express and shows like ER really tap into that for me. I know I wouldn’t like going back to a world without smart phones or our beloved AI overlords (please spare me) but it’s fun to look at. And while I’ve tried to kind of embrace that in an attempt just to feel good, there’s another idea I’ve been toying with lately. And that is that I have no nostalgia for the 2000s. In fact, as Infernal Affairs reminded me, this aesthetic sucked.

Set in Hong Kong just seven years after Fallen Angels depicted it as such a cool (albeit dangerous) city, Infernal Affairs is about two supremely badass dudes forced into badass haircuts and dumb clothes. They are Lau (Andy Lau, probably best known in the west for starring in House of Flying Daggers) and Chan (Tony Leung, you know him), two dudes in opposite undercover situations. Ten years ago, triad boss Hon (Eric Tsang) hired Lau and some other men with clean records to join the police force, climb the ranks, and keep him one step ahead of any investigations into his criminal business. Lau briefly, barely takes notice of Chan at the academy one day, as Chan is publicly expelled. This is actually a cover set up by Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong), who determined Chan as the early top of their class. Wong conceals any evidence that Chan attended the academy and asks him to pretend to be a criminal to infiltrate Hon’s organization.

Back in 2002, both men have succeeded in their missions: Lau has become a Senior Inspector reporting directly to Wong and Chan, stressed as he is, now serves as Hon’s right hand man. Chan meets with Wong and tips him off to a deal Hon’s about to make with Thai drug dealers. So Wong sets up an operation to bust the deal and bring down the triad, an operation Lau is a critical member of. So when shit’s about to go down, Lau is able to warn Hon and get the evidence destroyed before anything can be confiscated by the police. An enraged Wong goes and confronts Hon and they both implicitly lay their cards on the table: both men believe they have a mole in their organizations, and whoever finds theirs first wins.

You probably already knew this, but Infernal Affairs would go on to be remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed. In case you were wondering, like I was, if Scorsese’s movie just borrowed the concept, the answer is no! Most of the big scenes in Infernal Affairs also show up in The Departed, and some of the things you might have thought were just thrown in, like a love story between the undercover cop and his therapist, are actually here too. So is the shocking ending, which I thought would be more different since, you know, they made two more Infernal Affairs movies. But no, the whole elevator scene is in this. Really the biggest difference is how tight a story directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak construct compared to Scorsese. At a breezy 101 minutes, Infernal Affairs is nearly an hour shorter than its American remake.

The other big difference is that aesthetic. The Departed had Scorsese working in his zone, creating a heightened Boston that kind also just felt like Queens. He filled the movie with rock and roll needle drops. He filled the cast with dudes who chew scenery like it’s the only thing they can eat. Infernal Affairs also has a stacked cast and two leading men that arguably surpass Damon/DiCaprio. And then it dresses everyone in leather jackets and bootcut jeans. And backed them up with the cheesiest, most generic soundtrack I’ve heard all summer. And then undercut the most dramatic moments with that post-production low framerate slow motion that never looks good and some honest-to-god freeze frame fades to black. It was enough to distract me and really crystalize this idea that 2000-2009 is a vibe I just don’t care for… at least right now.

Movie’s sweet though, good time.