The Cinephile: "Infernal Affairs" (2002): The Struggle for Identity in a World of Echoes

By Katie Kilkenny, The Dartmouth Staff | 4/12/11 3:27pm

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Courtesy Of Nytimes.Movies.Com

"I'm a sailor peg/ And I lost my leg/ Climbing up the top sails/ I lost my leg!" is the refrain that defined movie music in 2006, when Martin Scorcese's "The Departed" exploded at the box office and racked up four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. "I'm Shipping Up to Boston," by Dropkick Murphys, this song blared out of stereos in dorm rooms, cars and living rooms alike. During Oscar season, I heard the song so much that I hummed it constantly — my family only put up with the annoyance because they thought it meant I was getting in touch with my Irish roots.

While Martin Scorcese's "The Departed" has entered the pantheon of contemporary American film and will remain a favorite for years to come, far fewer Americans have viewed Wai Keung-Lau and Alan Mak's excellent Hong Kong crime drama "Infernal Affairs." In fact, the story of "The Departed" was based on "Infernal Affairs" and follows its premise exactly: A cop working undercover as a gangster and a gangster working as a cop both leak information while attempting to find the other mole.

Tony Leung plays Chan, a policeman who has worked undercover for the nefarious, slick crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang) for 10 years and tells the police superintendent (Anthony Wong) he wants out. However, the police department doesn't have enough evidence to build a case against the crime lord and they are further impeded by the efforts of policeman Lau (Andy Lau) who informs Sam of its every move. Leung and Lau are fantastic, playing opposite ends of the spectrum with dexterity. As Chan grows weary of his act, Leung's face becomes increasingly sunken. Meanwhile, Lau radiates calculated reserve, hiding his dirty secrets behind razor-sharp cheekbones and steely eyes.

What sets "Infernal Affairs" apart from "The Departed" is that it provides a commentary on modern urban life, portraying how technological conveniences record every moment of Chan and Lau's pretense. Characters wield cell phones and computers
like they might pistols, furiously conveying information to dangerous ends. Directors Keung-Lau and Mak accordingly make rapid cuts through these scenes and throughout the film, imparting a breathless, manufactured quality on the final product. It is fitting then, that Chan and Lau first meet, each ignorant of the other's identity, in a Hong Kong tech store where they share a moment of bliss listening to a large stereo system.

The effect of technology's predominance on each character's deception is visible as Chan and Lau must constantly confront their assumed identities — in the echoes of recorded conversations, the reflections of glass skyscrapers during rooftop meetings and reports on the nightly news. Meanwhile, the cinematography paints the film in moody grays and blues, mirroring the skyscrapers and sleek computers that populate the sets. One fight (those familiar with "The Departed" will recognize it as the warehouse scene) takes place within a parking garage scattered with puddles, so that the characters are constantly reflected in pools of water. In this scene filled with fractured reflections, Chan and Lau come to realize that they may never escape their alter egos. Echoes and repercussions of their false personas follow them everywhere, until all they have left of themselves are memories.

Katie Kilkenny, The Dartmouth Staff