As a first-time viewer of Andrew Lau Wai-keung and Alan Mak’s iconic Hong Kong crime saga, I was taken with just how immaculate the film Infernal Affairs is and how disappointing its subsequent sequels, Infernal Affairs II and Infernal Affairs III, feel by comparison. There are much smarter writers out there who can put the entire trilogy into historical and cultural context; in fact, this new boxset includes an essay from critic Justin Chang which does just that. With that added knowledge, the trilogy takes on a much more profound shape. As a man simply sitting down to watch three crime movies, however, it’s hard not to say the trilogy as a whole is more perplexing than it is breathtaking.
Infernal Affairs follows dual moles Lau (Andy Lau Tak-wah) and Chan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai). The former is a decorated Internal Affairs officer who has spent his life as a mole for the Triads; the latter is a police officer who has spent his life as an undercover agent within Hong Kong’s underbelly. Their bosses, as it were, are Hon Sam (Eric Tsang Chi-wai), a gangster, and Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-sang), the police superintendent and the only man who knows Chan is undercover. A sting reveals to both the criminals and the cops that they have moles in their organizations, and it becomes a race against time for Lau and Chang to protect themselves as the walls close in.
The directors unite copious influences to tell their story, which feels like a natural marriage between 1990s Hong Kong action and Michael Mann’s Heat. (It was, of course, remade in English as 2006’s Best Picture Oscar-winning The Departed.) Unlike either of those two genres, however, it’s relatively lacking in overt violence. It’s an action-thriller with an emphasis on the latter, more concerned with the moral degradation or salvation of its two leads. Lau Tak-wah and Leung Chiu-wai were both at the height of their powers when Infernal Affairs was made, and they’re immaculate as these characters.
Infernal Affairs II is actually a prequel to the first film, digging deeper into the backstories of the four principal characters. Rather than redo the first film, II is a slow-burn crime epic set around the United Kingdom’s 1997 handover of Hong Kong. It’s beloved by many fans of the series, with some touting it as the best of the bunch, but I have a hard time seeing it. Wong and Tsang are particularly great in their returns but I wasn’t a fan of Edison Chen Koon-hei or Shawn Yue as younger versions of Lau and Chan, respectively, who aren’t granted any meaningful new complexity by the additional information revealed. Infernal Affairs II is a somewhat jarring follow-up to the first film, and it may take me more than just this first watch to truly appreciate its finer aspects.
Whereas Infernal Affairs II is a surprising, bold follow-up, Infernal Affairs III represents a wonky denouement, bringing back Lau Tak-wah and Leung Chiu-wai for a mixed prequel / sequel to the original film. The lack of clear delineation is initially confounding, and even when it all starts to click, the film fails to feel like a necessary addition to the first movie’s propulsive narrative. Both of the original actors give it their all, and it’s certainly nice to see the final descent for corrupt inspector Lau. But as a whole, it feels less necessary than either of its predecessors. As far as a packaged trilogy, this one feels like the pack-in.
The Criterion Collection has packaged all three into a nice digipak with the aforementioned essay booklet by Chang. Special features include:
- New 4K digital restorations, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks
- Audio commentaries for Infernal Affairs and Infernal Affairs II featuring co-directors Andrew Lau Wai-keung and Alan Mak and screenwriter Felix Chong Man-keung
- Alternate ending for Infernal Affairs
- New interview with Lau Wai-keung and Mak
- Archival interviews with Mak, Lau Wai-keung, Chong Man-keung, Lau Tak-wah, Leung Chiu-wai, Wong Chau-sang, Chen Koon-hei, Tsang Chi-wai, Kelly Chen Wai-lam and Chapman To Man-chak
- Making-of programs
- Behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes and outtakes
- New English subtitle translations
Infernal Affairs is one of the most internationally famous Hong Kong films of this century, and it’s not difficult to find if you’re interested in a cheap copy. That said, this is the cheapest and nicest way to own all three films on Region A. Janus Films (which owns Criterion) has screened 4K prints of the films in theaters, but please note that despite the new restorations, these are not 4K UHD discs. They still look quite good, however, though I have few points of real comparison. In terms of packaging, price and overall value, this is the ideal way for curious American viewers to get their hands on these films.