I'll go out on a limb and say that we all know that big Hollywood studios are generally devoid of new material or ideas, and that they have to lean on other sources of material to shape for North American sensibilities. Sometimes it works, most times, it does not, and there are others that result in different shades of gray. And before Martin Scorsese won a long overdue Oscar for The Departed, in its other incarnation the story had already been realized as Infernal Affairs, a Hong Kong crime thriller that spawned two sequels before filming on The Departed had even begun. Thankfully, now there can be more of a comparison made between an American remake and its international predecessor. So how does Infernal Affairs stack up to it, along with its own merits?
Written by Felix Chong and Alan Mak (the latter of whom would direct the film), Andrew Lau co-directs the film and is no relation to Andy Lau (House of Flying Daggers), who plays Lau Kin Ming, a Hong Kong police Inspector who is actually a mole for a triad mob boss named Hon Sam (Eric Tsang, Accidental Spy). Ming rises through the ranks of the police department and becomes part of a task force designed to hunt out the mole in the department, to hunt out himself in effect. Through a working relationship with Inspector Wong (Anthony Wong, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), Ming finds out there is an undercover officer within Sam's organization. The officer, Chen Wing Yan (Tony Leung, Red Cliff), has been undercover for a decade, and at this point only Wong knows of the officer's identity. The race for Ming and Yan to try and find out the other's true identity begins, with the ultimate result being either capture or death.
The quartet of Lau, Cheung, Wong and Tsang is well known within Hong Kong acting circles, and their performance in the major roles live up to the billing. As Sam, Tsang is boastful but also calculating, and far more hemmed in that Nicholson's version in The Departed. Thus, he proves to be more effective in the role and provides his own type of fear within his soldiers. Wong's elder presence on the force is satisfactory, though he does manage to attempt to connect to Yan in a way that previous handlers didn't, and this kinship buoys Yan as he slowly loses his identity in this alter ego.
The main components in the film are (of course) Cheung and Lau, and both handle their lead roles well. Comparing them to Leonard DiCaprio and Matt Damon (respectively) in the remake, one of the things that you'll notice is that there is more of a balance in each character's ordeal in Infernal Affairs. In The Departed, you see Leo kvetch about his dilemma a lot more than Damon (though Damon's conflict is subtly and superbly communicated) in a 65-35 ratio, but in this one, Lau stakes out his personal ground a little more openly and evenly as Cheung does. With the help of additional jump cuts back to black and white film that helps keep the story from being confusing, there is a little less nuance in Infernal Affairs than in The Departed, but the core story remains as effective, if not slightly more so because of the performances.
It's hard to say whether Infernal Affairs is better than The Departed, and I think that "pushing" on the issue is a bit of a cop out, but the simple fact of the matter is that each really are good in their individual ways. Where The Departed has solid performances by its leads, Infernal Affairs focuses on the psychology of its main characters more and thus feels like a tauter affair than The Departed, irrespective of time and exclusively on its own qualities.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Infernal Affairs comes to Blu-ray in an AVC-encoded 2.35:1 high-definition presentation that is adequate though hardly overwhelming. The ample shots of the Hong Kong exteriors look clear, though the level of detail or a multidimensional look is not conveyed as effectively. Black levels are replicated fairly and flesh tones are accurate, and there is a visible layer of film grain during viewing most of the film. There does not appear to be any noticeable or prolonged DNR in the image, and it lacks any consistent detail during viewing. It just appears to be straightforward viewing without a substantial step up from the previous standard def discs.
I recall the audio on the standard definition import discs I had being not too bad, and the Chinese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround track the Blu-ray sports helps replicate that feeling. The low-end activity from bullet hits and car wrecks is a little surprising, and the noise of mid-2000 cell phones receiving calls and texts is startling but clear. In fact, there are even some directional and ambient effects in some of the scenes in the police building (particularly when Sam is being questioned). On the flip side, dialogue is inconsistent through the film so the adjustments back and forth are inconvenient. Overall, the film sounds pretty good regardless.
Everything from the standard definition disc that Lionsgate/Miramax issued previously comes over to Blu-ray. "The Making of Infernal Affairs" (15:21) covers the thoughts of the cast and their working with one another, and on the motivations of the characters and the quality of the story. It does not cover much ground and is pretty topical. Even more topical is "Confidential File" (6:04), which does include the cast and crew being blessed by some sort of shaman before the production, and includes a little more testimony as to how profound this pairing of familiar film names is. An alternate ending (2:54) follows, which is a little more spelled out and that much sillier as a result. An International trailer (2:21) and a Chinese language trailer (1:47) round things out.
Note: As to whether the subtitles have been cleaned up from the previous release, I'm afraid I can only speak based on assumptions as I've not seen the North American release, just the imports. Based on the way the supplements were ported over, I'd assume the subtitles remain the same for the Blu-ray.
Despite the wider release and recognition of The Departed, I think Infernal Affairs still has enough teeth in the game to earn some attention for the discerning film enthusiast. Technically, it is not a looker, but the sound is nice, and there is nothing substantial in terms of bonus material. I would not double-dip if you have one of the standard definition discs, but if you have not seen this and seen the remake, you owe it to yourself to check this out.