Wednesday, October 04, 2006

INFERNAL AFFAIRS/MOU GAAN DOU - untouchably brilliant Hong Kong thriller

What thousands must die, so that Caesar may become the great.  I'm writing a review of INFERNAL AFFAIRS to get the movie out of my system before writing up the Martin Scorsese remake, THE DEPARTED. Like most people in Europe, I saw INFERNAL AFFAIRS on DVD rather than at the cinema, and it impressed me as one of the most genuinely mind-bending thrillers I had ever seen. The set-up is simple. The Hong Kong triads plant a young mole, played by the director Andy Lau, in the Hong Kong police department. The police do the same, getting a guy played by the superlative actor Tony Leung (2046 & IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE) to infiltrate the triads. Over time these men achieve success in the new roles, earning the respect and camaraderie of their new "friends". So, when each organisation suspects it has become infiltrated, each man has to ask himself who he really is and to whom his loyalty lies. It's a conventional thriller - will they be uncovered? - but it's also a remarkably thoughtful and emotional movie.

Very emotional. Tony Leung is the absolutely perfect actor for the role of the cop turned thug. He has a screen presence that invites you to empathise with him. His situation is truly hellish - he can see that he is a good crook but he wants to get back to "reality". Only a couple of cops know his true identity and he is reliant on them to bring him back. He becomes increasingly desperate, realising that his boss has little incentive to bring in his best source of information on the enemy. Like all pawns through history - the movie references Rome - Leung is an increasingly unwilling sacrificial lamb. Andy Lau's character is a different kettle of fish. Lau is a big action star in Hong Kong and he plays this role with the cool of Schumacher. He is expert at keeping things hovering just above the surface - an expertise that neuters his ability to have a serious emotional connection with his girlfriend.

What else can I say about this movie? The cinematography has a harsh, unsettling feel - all muted, drained colours and clever inter-cutting. Christopher Doyle - the best cinematographer currently working - was the visual consultant and it shows. But perhaps the real success of the film is down to the fact that Andy Lau also photographed, scripted, directed and starred in the movie. Perhaps what we are benefiting from is the single-minded vision of one man seen through to the end with no compromise?

All in all, for me, INFERNAL AFFAIRS redefined how much you could do with crime thriller genre - it broke the boundaries. It's one of those rare films where you just can't find any fault with it - like Dr STRANGELOVE or IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. If you haven't seen it, you should DEFINITELY check it out, preferably before seeing the Scorsese remake.

INFERNAL AFFAIRS was released in Hong Kong in 2002 and opened in the UK and US in 2004. It is available on DVD.


  1. Yeah, the whole trilogy is really strong and the 2nd film really enhances the original by fleshing out he characters a bit more. As much as I respect Scorsese, I don't really have any urge to see his remake.

  2. Just saw this on channel 4 (all hail!) & it was very good but I didn't quite understand all of it. The two sequels are on tonight (Tuesday night) & tomorrow night.