One thing I find displeasing about the contemporary Western cinematic landscape is its visual flakiness. The best shots of our biggest blockbusters are basically lifeless realizations of pre-vis. The images just aren’t memorable. The whole “One Perfect Shot” phenomenon is remarkably ironic given how many of the contemporary shots that trend on these social media accounts are instantly forgettable. I challenge you to think of more than three single shots in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, not including the famed group shot of The Avengers (2012). It’s difficult, even for movie junkies like myself. This is just what has happened to our mainstream cinema.
But that’s not Infernal Affairs (2002), directed by Alan Mak and Andrew Lau. This is a movie, kind of like last year’s Decision to Leave, that’s just packed with iconic (in the original sense of the word) images. The rooftop climax scene alone has more etched-in-my-memory perspectives than does the majority of Netflix’s original big budget programming combined. A movie doesn’t need memorable images to be a good or even great piece of art… but it certainly helps—and Mak and Lau know this. The images of this film carry true staying power.
A titan in the history of Hong Kong cinema, Infernal Affairs is as close as we will ever get to an adaptation of the Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. Bookmarked with quotations from Buddhist scriptures about the philosophies of eternal suffering and hell in the Tibetan tradition, Infernal Affairs (and its English language remake, The Departed) is about two men whose identities become lost in themselves, mirrored in each other, and ultimately destined for obliteration through their confrontations with one another. They can only save their souls, so to speak, by coming to terms with their own obliteration.
A cop, Chan Wing-yan (Tony Leung), and a gang member, Lau Kin-ming (Andy Lau), seed themselves as undercover moles in the antagonizing organization. Before they become useful to their truthful loyalties, ten years pass and they’ve both wasted a decade living a lie and confusing their identities. When their respective superiors learn of the existence of a mole within their own ranks, the two two-facers must find their opponent before they themselves are discovered. They find themselves in a dark night of the soul.
In the final words of timeless poem by St. John of the Cross,
I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
Like John, Chan and Lau have abandoned and forgotten themselves. Though there is no mystical, cathartic union, the two seem haunted in a way that the tradition inspired by the poem speaks to best. If the Catholic Dark Night is one of death and rebirth, in the perverted psychological postmodern fashion of Slavoj Žižek, their death necessitates the complete end of one’s self. “A new subject emerges which survives the death (erasure) of its symbolic identity,” the philosopher wrote. By his measures, by time the film starts our two protagonists have already died.
As we saw in December’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, when one tells a lie they become willing to defend the lie in ways previously unimaginable. The act of lying alters one’s very predisposition to do good, darkening their propensity for moral good. To lie about one’s very core identity—the thing that makes them, them—and in a way that’s in direct ethical and philosophical odds to their very own identity but comes from their own identity, nonetheless—is to basically end one’s metaphysical understanding of one’s self. That’s to say, eventually you’ll become confused about your own beliefs, your own moral standards, your own loyalties. Chan and Lau, respectively played by some of Hong Kong’s best (in their older years—the younger versions are played by different, though talented and capable actors in their own rights), lose track of themselves. Avoiding spoilers, it will suffice to just leave the reader with the following question: if you told yourself a lie for a decade, a lie that wasn’t so white but rather foundational, at what point would you begin to question what’s the truth?
It might also be Leung’s most unique performance thus far. Intentionally ripping himself from his own charisma while retaining his natural tired look and effortless sexiness, he’s a bit dirtier and less confident than usual. He’s more injured than the impeccable Leung of Chungking Express (1994) or Lust, Caution (2007). Oddly, it feels like the announcement of a new character actor, though his career took a definitely different path thanks to his continued collaboration with longtime partner Wong Kar-wai. He’s so great it almost hurts the film, pulling attention away from Lau’s Lau in a script that really requires psychological equality between the two.
The final production results in two additions to the Mount Rushmore of identity crises on film, a psychological aspect in which the American film replicates and narrows. But Infernal Affairs has one thing that its Scorsese peer simply can’t: political staying power. In the early 2000s, post-Handover Hong Kong faced financial disaster and a period of artistic decay. As James Balmont writes in AnOther, “The looming Hong Kong Handover of 1997, in which autonomy would be transferred from Britain to Mainland China, only made things worse—with Hong Kong filmmaking figureheads like [John] Woo, [Dante] Lam and [Tsui] Hark departing for Hollywood, fearing stifled creative liberties and diminished work opportunities at home. Rampant piracy and the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis fuelled cinema closures and reduced budgets. And by 1998, only 85 features were completed as the industry nose-dived into recession.”
Often credited as one of the last hurrahs for the long-lived and sensational Hong Kong film industry, Infernal Affairs has few other-national comparisons in geo-political history. Perhaps the late Soviet Come and See (1985) or Dead Man’s Letters (1986)? But these films come noticeably a few years before the empire’s fall in 1991, not to mention the fact that the communist collapse was unimaginable in the mid-’80s whereas the handover was an inevitable political destiny. Perhaps one of the great global warming films, say First Reformed (2017) or even the goofier Waterworld (1995), might be a better analogy: an everlasting monument to the downfall of something once great, a reminder whose potency outlasts and outpowers the formal artistic material itself?
Thinking about Infernal Affairs, I’m oddly reminded of the “The Thinker” sculpture by Rodin at the Cleveland Art Museum. Of the 25 versions of the statue, the one in Ohio is unique. It was defaced through a targeted explosion in 1970, a political time in America in need of no introduction. The museum, channeled by the Rodin, symbolized Cleveland’s (white) elite to a very diverse and segregated city. But, oddly, the museum left the sculpture outside and unrestored after the incident where it remains to this day—a reminder of a bygone era, a memorial to America to which some Republicans would have us return.
Of course, I don’t think this was the last great Hong Kong film. That’s ridiculous. Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After (2014) is one of my all-time favorites, Johnnie To’s Drug War (2012) is a must see genre film, and Ip Man (2008) was a co-production with the mainland. But these all ruin the symbolic storybook ending of Mak and Lau’s shocking Infernal Affairs, don’t they?
Anyways, it’s best to look at these exceptions not as indications of a resurrection (in fact, that’s now incredibly improbable with the newly imposed Chinese censors for Hong Kong) but rather as chronological anomalies to a time-period now passed.
dir.Alan Mak & Andrew Lau
Screens a recently restored version (!) at The Brattle Theatre on Thursday, 1/5 at 4:45, 7:00, and 9:15 pm as part of the Refreshed, Renewed, Restored series.