Dir. Andrew Lau, Alan Mak. Hong Kong. 2002. 98mins.

A smart Hong Kong action thriller, Infernal Affairs stands to prove as much of a hit on the international market as it has done at the box office at home. With both a prequel and sequel already in the works, Warner Bros, along with Brad Grey and Brad Pitt, have paid $1.75m for English-language remake rights. Cleverly written, energetically directed and superbly shot and edited, it has proved a surefire winner in Hong Kong, where the presence of Chinese cinema superstars Andy Lau and Tony Leung has seen it take $7.1m since it opened in mid-December on 76 screens, making it the biggest hit at the box office last year, where it edged out Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets. Internationally, the twists and turns in its storyline will prove a success not only on the international festival circuit but also in commercial niche markets which hanker for this sort of material.

Vaguely evocative of Face/Off, with its schizophrenic encounter between good and evil, Alan Mak and Felix Chong's skilful script pits a police detective, Ming (Andy Lau) who is in reality a mole for the Triads, against policeman Yan (Tony Leung) who has been masquerading for 10 years, undercover, as a Triad strong man. In both cases, only their immediate bosses are aware of their real identities. When Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong) and top drug dealer Sam (Eric Tsang) clash, as the former tries to catch the latter in the act, it is the information supplied by their two respective spies that serves as their main weapons.

The parallels between the fates of Ming and Yan, each planted on one side of the law and committed to the other, is the main source of material for the script. An opening and a closing quotation refer to the state of the two tormented protagonists as a 'continuous hell', in which longevity is one of the more painful tortures and death, by implication, might be considered a relief.

Both characters have an almost filial relationship with the older men who control them and both are looking for a way out of their predicament, the fake detective trying to forego his illegal past, the undercover agent desperate to retrieve a solid identity of his own. Similar contrasts exist: the 'detective's' girlfriend writes a novel whose main character suffers from multiple personalities; the undercover policeman will only tell his woman psychiatrist the truth about himself. Both men have dedicated friends for whose death they are responsible. There are abundantly more examples such as these coming up as both the law and the criminals are desperately attempting to unearth and purge the secret agents in their midst, in a series of chases and ambushes whose outcome is constantly redefined by the respective input of the two secret agents.

Director Andrew Lau, who is also in charge of the stylised, atmospheric camera work, has displayed in the past a distinct flair for such raw explosions of sheer violence as the Young And Dangerous series. Here, however, he reins in this tendency, allowing the intricacies of the plot to do most of the work. That his co-director, Alan Mak, is also one of the scriptwriters, can only help this restraint.

The two leads are ideally suited for their roles, with Andy Lau (no relation to the director) once again the dark, shady, ambiguous hero while Tony Leung is the one who can do no wrong. The supporting cast makes the best of the nicely developed secondary roles it has been offered. Deft editing overcomes any confusion generated by a storyline which rejects the classical chronological structure in favour of more challenging patterns to keep the audience on its toes.

Prod co: Basic Pictures
Int'l sales/HK dist:
Media Asia Films
Exec prod:
Andrew Lau
Prod: Nasun Shi, John Chory
Alan Mak, Felix Chong
Andrew Lau, Lay Yiu Fai
Visual consultant:
Christopher Doyle
Danny Pang, Pang Ching Hei
Prod des:
Choo Sung Pong, Wong Ching Ching
Chang Kwong Wing
Main cast:
Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, Chapman To, Lam Ka Tung, Ng Ting Yip, Wan Chi Keung, Sammi Cheng, Kelly Chen, Edison Chen, Shawn Andy Lau,Yue, Elva Hsiao