This is part of a series of posts reflecting on CRIME: Hong Kong Style, a season of films currently showing at HOME, Manchester in which the CFFUK has assisted. There are 20 films showing at HOME and at over 20 regional venues around the country. More information can be found here. This post was written by Felicia Chan.
This is a revised version of the introduction I gave at the screening of Infernal Affairs on Monday, 7th March at HOME.
Watching these Hong Kong crime films across the season in the past month, I’m reminded by how far back the history of the genre reaches — note that programme notes for most of the films can be downloaded from the HOME website, as well as a genre timeline — and that how after all that time, in 2002 Infernal Affairs still somehow managed to do and say something that hadn’t been thought of or done before. I’ve taught the film on my Chinese cinema courses many times in the past decade or so and have watched it at least a dozen times, yet I was still really excited to see it on the big screen at HOME. It was fantastic to see so many people at the film’s screening in Cinema 1 (over 100, I’m told!), considering it was on at 6:00pm on a Monday night. I’m encouraged that given the right conditions, the right film can still draw out an appetite for cinema-going as a social and cultural activity in spite of the distractions of home media and personal devices.
Felicia Chan introducing ‘Infernal Affairs’ at HOME
Since so much of the engagement in Infernal Affairs depended on the pacing and the complexity of the plot, in writing the introduction to the film, I was mindful of not giving too much away and spoiling it for those who hadn’t seen it. I pitched it to who I saw as three main groups of audience: (1) people who had seen the film before, and possibly many times since it was first released; (2) people who had only seen The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006) and may have wanted to see ‘the original’ film on which it was based; and (3) people who had seen neither. It was a bit of a balancing act trying to speak to some context without giving too much of the plot away. In the end, I settled simply on suggesting that Infernal Affairs took the familiar trope of the undercover cop and crook to its logical, and extreme, conclusion, and in so doing, upped the ante on the complexity of plot construction and on the level of jeopardy for its characters, played by a number of familiar faces in Hong Kong crime cinema (Eric Tsang, Anthony Wong, Chapman To) and starring two A-list male stars, Tony Leung and Andy Lau, in the central roles.
It is difficult to talk about Hong Kong cinema, especially a film that puts the city itself so much on display, without talking about the socio-political context of the handover in 1997 from British colonial rule to PRC jurisdiction. Released in 2002, five years after the handover, it is possible to read the film (as has been done by critics) as an allegory for the continuing identity concerns faced by Hong Kong, as a culture and a society located between worlds, empires and histories. A question often discussed in my classes on the film asks: If you’ve spent 10, 20 years living as someone else, are you still you? Are you who you think you are? How much of our sense of identity is dependent on how it is reflected back to us by family, friends, co-workers and society at large?
Infernal Affairs explores this question within a slick, stylish package — and one could say, brings the HK crime film into the light. Notice how much of the film is set in the light, especially on the rooftops of buildings — where realistically, if one were trying to have a secret conversation, it would not likely be on the sunny roof of a building in full view of taller skyscrapers in the vicinity. Logic is not the issue here — the image of Hong Kong and Hong Kong cinema is. Notice how much of the cinematography sets the action up against the sparkling glass surfaces of nearby skyscrapers as well as the sprawling skyline of the modern city overlooking the bay and the harbour.
Beyond handover anxieties, it was also important to consider the film within other socio-economic contexts, and to see the film as a celebration of Hong Kong and Hong Kong cinema as it faced some of its greatest challenges. Although 1997 is frequently spoken of as the year of the handover, it was in other ways an annus horribilis for the territory and the film industry: coinciding with the handover was a severe outbreak of avian flu (pre-empting the SARS crisis that was to strike in 2003), as well as the onset of the Asian financial crisis which saw the overnight devaluation of several Asian currencies. These catastrophes had a profound impact on many film production houses, distribution companies and storage facilities and further struck at the territory’s confidence in its self-image as being at the forefront of capitalist modernity. Even before these catastrophes, by the late 1990s, Hong Kong cinema production was already on the decline compared to its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, as the industry faced multiple challenges from the conversion of standalone cinemas to multiplexes, rising ticket prices, rampant piracy, changing audience tastes and the onslaught of Hollywood when, as I sometimes put it, ‘the dinosaurs came to town.’ For the first time in this period, Hollywood in the form of Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) and Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) conquered the Hong Kong box office, where the domestic product had reigned supreme for decades.
Tony Leung and Andy Lau share a musical moment
In this context, it is possible to read Infernal Affairs as expressing a kind of renewed energy and confidence in Hong Kong cinema. Appropriating the higher production values audiences have come to expect from Hollywood and celebrating Hong Kong’s modernity and cutting-edge technology, one gets the sense that the film is saying — even as it struggles with crises of identity — ‘We can still do this!’ And do it better than anyone else. The film’s overwhelming success at the box office in Asia suggests that audiences in the region, equally depressed for all the reasons I’ve cited above, responded in the same spirit.
As Andy Willis (curator of the season) and I had discussed women in Hong Kong crime film on the HOME podcast a few weeks ago, I thought it was important to flag up the role of women in the film, especially as someone had asked me why the women in Hong Kong crime films mostly seemed so insipid. It is entirely plausible to think the same of the two female characters in this film: Mary (Sammi Cheng), Ming’s (Andy Lau) fiancée, and Dr Lee (Kelly Chen), the psychiatrist who spends most of her time on computer solitaire before saving Yan’s (Tony Leung) posthumous reputation and identity. The women seem a bit sidelined as the men battle it out and have been variously noted to be ‘annoying’, ‘childish’, ‘lame’. As in most masculine genre films, female characters are often present to reinforce the masculinity of men. In Hollywood films, masculinity is usually affirmed by the sexual conquest of women — think of the James Bond movies. In many Hong Kong crime films, it is the unfailing, often even chaste, devotion of the women that humanises the men, who operate in what is an otherwise dehumanising, hellish, world.
The word ‘infernal’ in the title is thus not a misspelled Hong Kong English derivation of Internal Affairs (Mike Figgis, 1990), the American film starring Richard Gere, as is sometimes suggested or as the autocorrect on my phone insists. It is a direct reference to the inferno of hell, and the film’s Chinese title refers specifically to a kind of hell in Buddhist mythology. From the opening credits we are introduced to the multiple levels of Buddhist hells (eight levels are mentioned here, but in some traditions there are many more than eight), which refer metaphorically to the levels of human suffering. The film’s characters are said to occupy the lowest level, the avici hell, reserved for the worst sins, where the suffering and torment are said to be continuous. Yet in Buddhist mythology, this level is also the one that allows one to be reborn, albeit after several eons of suffering, through a process of purification. Reading Infernal Affairs in this context makes the film far more interesting, in my view, than your regular morality tale: of cops vs gangsters, right vs wrong, good vs evil. In a Buddhist context, the dilemma — and thus the ‘hell’ — faced by the characters is not so much one of action, of doing the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing, but rather the incisive question of who and how one is in the world.
Judging from the audience’s response to the film after the screening, it is fair to say that Infernal Affairs retains an energy and a freshness that belie the 14 years since its release and that has cemented its place within the canon of ‘stone-cold classics’ in the genre of Hong Kong crime films. At the time of its release the film was a huge hit in Hong Kong and Asia and I’m told also in the UK. It had less success theatrically in America, except in the form of The Departed (2006).
Felix Chong, co-writer of ‘Infernal Affair’s talks with CFFUK member Andy Willis
Given its achievements, it seems a shame that Infernal Affairs cannot today seem to be spoken of without mention of Scorsese’s adaptation. Yes, I have just done it myself, but in atonement shall offer the last word on the matter to Felix Chong, co-writer of Infernal Affairs, who was asked by an audience member at the Q&A following the screening of his own film Once A Gangster (2010) at HOME last week, what he thought of The Departed. Chong said, ‘The Departed is a really good American film. A really good film, if…’, he qualified, ‘you haven’t seen the original.’ QED.