Saturday, October 16, 2004

Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

I'll admit it - the first time I heard the name "Infernal Affairs", I thought it was going to be a movie about demons possessing cops or something like that. I did know better by the time it played at the Boston Fantastic Film Festival - it's a crime movie, and one of the best you'll have a chance to see.

The concept is deliciously simple - in 1992, an up-and-coming crime boss has several of the younger members of his gang with clean records enroll in the police academy. At the same time, one of the more promising students at the academy is apparently tossed out, but is in fact being sent undercover with the triads; only two people know about this mission. Flash-forward ten years, and now Lau (Andy Lau) is a rising star in the Hong Kong vice squad, and Yan (Tony Leung) is burning out as a triad soldier, still undercover even though the original mission was to be for three years. As luck would have it, Lau is working under SP Wong (Anthony Wong), the man who sent Yan undercover, while Yan is the right-hand man of Sam (Eric Tsang), the gangster who sent Lau to the police academy.

Things come to a head when, during a meeting with Sam's Thai suppliers that Wong has targeted for a bust, both sides are able to anticipate the others' moves too quickly. Both Sam and Wong realize they've got a mole in their teams, and they know that the other guy knows. So it's a race, and both moles will be pressed into service to help find the identity of their opposite number.

Infernal Affairs isn't John Woo flashy, it's not filled with a whole lot of crazy gun or martial arts battles, and though it gets you inside the characters' heads, it never loses sight of its purpose: To create a desperate need to know what's going to happen next. The screenplay is a suspense machine as four very capable opponents square off, with every new discovery bringing a plot twist that sends it off in a new direction. It's like watching a game of chess where both sides can move at the same time.

This is a sure-handed movie, with good performances turned in by all the principal actors, along with likable supporting turns by Kelly Chen as a psychiatrist Yan becomes smitten with and Sammi Cheng as Lau's girlfriend, a novelist writing a story about a man with multiple personalities. The script by Felix Chong and Siu Fai Mak is pretty tight (though you might wonder why a man in a compromised unit would be promoted to Internal Affairs), and the direction by Siu and Wai Keung Lau is up to the same standard. The movie zips forward relentlessly, barely even slowing down for that Hong Kong movie tradition, the flashback-laden music video.

Infernal Affairs is, quite simply, a fantastic crime drama, one of the best in years. Miramax is allegedly giving it a theatrical release, as they try to figure out how to get revenue from the original without inviting too many comparisons when they release a Martin Scorcese/Matt Damon/Leonardo DiCaprio remake in a couple years. If you get the chance to see it, pounce.

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