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 Yan gets expelled from the academy. Lau’s training officer heaping scorn and insults upon him as he leaves. Neither Lau, nor the training officer realize that Yan has just been assigned a three-year undercover mission. In fact, only two other people know that he is still a cop.
As Yan rises from petty hoodlum to actual gangster, Lau is rising through the ranks of the police, doing good police work while sneaking information to Sam. There are points where Lau and Yan actually cross paths, and Lau arrests Yan at least once, but they do not appear to remember each other. Yan’s three-year assignment somehow gets longer and longer. By the time the story proper begins, Lau and Yan have both been undercover for ten years, with Yan having spent the last three working as a gangster under 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 Yan being undercover. That leaves Superintendent Wong as the one person who knows. Yan 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 Yan’s status as a cop if he does not properly distinguish between acting like a criminal and being a criminal. Yan 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. Yan does not know where the deal will take place or where the drugs will go once Sam gets them. Wong says that Yan can retire after this, but Yan scoffs at him…and then scoffs at the mic that Wong gives him. Then Wong gives him a watch…apparently, Yan 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 Yan 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. This confirms Wong’s suspicion that there is a mole in the police force.
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 other’s mole first. Of course, Lau and Yan are put 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 else’s gang, of course that person has put a spy in yours. It is like the Yin-Yang symbol, with one black mark in the white area and one white mark in the black area. Except there is not really a harmonious balance, just harm. 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 Yan struggle with the nature of their jobs. They are tasked by their supposed bosses to track down themselves, while playing a game of cat and mouse with each other for their real bosses. Except who is the cat and who is the mouse?
Yan 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. He might as well not do his undercover work…or even gangster work, just nap at the therapist’s office. Lau seems to have become a good cop and good leader, and his somewhat annoying fiancée 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 crisis, of loyalty, of putting one’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 wasn’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. At least better than they could have been. The combined total of their box office did not match that of the first movie, by the way. Martin Scorsese 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 Scorsese 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 86: Cart (South Korea: 2014, approx. 104 minutes)
This WAS available on Netflix, but now it is just…online.
WTF ASIA 87: Pratidwandi (India: 1970, approx. 105 minutes)