The Infernal Affairs Trilogy is the Chinese equivalent of The Godfather Saga, a gangland epic that is both a tremendous artistic achievement and a pop culture phenomenon. Hong Kong superstars Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love) and Andy Lau (House of Flying Daggers) play, respectively, triad member Yan on one side of the law and police inspector Ming on the other. While this could be the set-up for many generic crime thrillers, the twist is exactly where each character's loyalties lie. Yan, it turns out, is actually a deep-cover police officer working in the triads, while Ming is a triad mole working in the police department. Both were recruited at a young age and have been undercover for so long that no one suspects them. Neither man knows of the other's identity, but at a certain point each will be assigned the task of hunting out the spy in their own organization (essentially looking for themselves) while simultaneously trying to find and stop the other.
This is a juicy concept with plenty of opportunity for cat-and-mouse thrills. The first Infernal Affairs from 2002 certainly delivers on that promise, but also goes above and beyond in its attention to fantastically rich psychological depth and the personal relationships of the characters. Each man is conflicted in his duties, struggling to understand and assert his own identity in light of what he must do for his job. Each must face a distinct moral dilemma and decide who he really wants to be. Do the ends truly justify the means? Is redemption possible for a person who has done so many terrible things to achieve a goal he isn't even sure he believes in anymore?
Infernal Affairs is a tightly written and directed movie that packs a lot of substance into its 100-minute length. It has hardly a single wasted or extraneous moment. It has excitement and suspense, rich character development, terrific acting from a large cast, and manages to guide the audience through a labyrinthine and complex plot while developing strong attachments to even minor characters. Its tragic, ironic climax has deep emotional resonance, though unfortunately a last-minute tacked-on ending is something of a cop-out and the movie would have closed stronger if the credits came up a couple of minutes earlier. Despite this minor flaw, however, it is one of the best movies to ever come out of the Hong Kong film industry. The picture was a blockbuster hit throughout Asia, won countless local awards, and spawned two back-to-back sequels the following year of 2003.
If it seems like the first movie should be a self-contained entity with no room for a sequel, Infernal Affairs II proves just how ambitiously filmmakers Andrew Lau (not related to the actor) and Alan Mak really set their sights. Taking a cue from The Godfather Part II, the directors retraced their characters' steps by staging the second movie as a prequel depicting the recruitment and early careers of the teenage Yan and Ming. Almost the entire original cast returns, with the exception of Leung and Lau, whose characters are played by the same younger actors used in the first picture's flashback scenes.
Far from the redundant cash-in it might have been, Infernal Affairs II tells an engrossing story that adds further depth to the events of the first movie by showing us the scope of the backstory leading up to them. With this entry, Infernal Affairs becomes more than just a crime drama; it's a true epic of honor, loyalty, morality, and family. Given a chance to shine here are the father-figures from the first film of triad boss Sam (Eric Tsang) and Inspector Wong (Anthony Wong), whose complicated relationship was hinted at but not fully revealed the first time around. The prequel is longer and a bit messier than the original, with a lot of new characters and a jumpy structure that can be confusing on first viewing. The two teenage leads also look a lot alike, which can be disorienting. On the other hand, it has several genuinely powerful, operatic story arcs and a number of shocking twists. It's a worthy follow-up that both builds off and adds to its predecessor, and was another big critical and commercial success.
Tony Leung and Andy Lau return in Infernal Affairs III. The most complexly structured of the three movies, the final entry serves as both a direct sequel to the first movie, its primary storyline picking up a few months after the original's climax, and a between-quel with a number of flashbacks that take place after the events depicted in part II but before those of part I. Having successfully kept his identity and motives a secret, Ming finds his life falling apart as he deals with the fallout of his previous actions. His wife has left him and the police department has moved him to a desk job as they sort out the investigation of his interaction with Yan. Eventually reassigned to Internal Affairs, Ming's first job is to dig out the other triad moles in the police force. Both out of his desire to do the right thing and a desperate need to cover his own ass, Ming hunts these men down and whacks them one by one until facing off against Inspector Yeung (Leon Lai from Heroic Duo), a man he is convinced was Sam's most important mole and will be the best target to pin his own crimes on.
For whatever reason, big movie trilogies rarely ever conclude on their strongest note. So it is with Infernal Affairs III, which while still a pretty good movie overall is unfortunately the least successful of the series. Most of the blame is due to the film's overly complicated structure, which jumps around too much for the viewer to ever get a firm handle on what's going on or to develop attachments to any one storyline. Although flashbacks allow most of the original cast to return in some capacity, the compelling characters of Sam and Wong are reduced to mere cameos and even Yan hardly has much to do here. Tony Leung doesn't seem particularly involved in the role, as if he'd lost interest, and worse his clean-shaven appearance (he must have shaved for another movie and not had time to grow out his straggly facial hair) makes him look older and creates a number of continuity errors with the events of the first movie. The film's plot has too many twists for its own good. The movie seems to have three or four different endings before finally drawing to a close, and the scene that does finally end the series was not the most effective choice.
What does work in Infernal Affairs III, however, is the continued evolution and breakdown of Ming's character, a man so obsessed with finding personal redemption that he loses sight of the true effects of his actions. The movie also has some clever reworking of the events from part I as we see the version of the story as Ming tells it. Part III even goes out of the way to fill in some of the unexplained gaps in the first movie, such as why Yan was wearing a cast early in the picture, why he was working in a stereo shop for one scene, and why he visits a psychiatrist. Perhaps not all of these details were necessary to explain, but by the time the trilogy is over it has a satisfying cohesion from one part to the next, and feels as though the entire story were elaborately mapped out in advance, unlike many other "trilogies" where one hit film is followed by two needless cash-in sequels.
The Infernal Affairs Trilogy may have some ups and downs, but the sum total of its achievement is a staggering artistic accomplishment. It's a bold and daring merger of police thriller, epic crime saga, and complex psychological drama that deserves to stand with such classics as the Godfather films, Goodfellas, or Michael Mann's Heat.
The packaging is handsome but also quite cumbersome. The 8 discs are stored in 7 separate keepcases (both discs of the miniseries fit in the same case). Honestly, there's no need for this; they could have saved a lot of space by putting the 8 discs into 4 double cases instead. The keepcases are all held in a little shrine, which is then covered by a hard plastic shell. The whole thing goes into a black bubble-wrap cocoon and then is settled into an oversized cardboard box. It looks very impressive on the shelf, but it's a real pain to take an individual disc out when you want to watch one. I believe the box and bubble-wrap are meant to be discarded, but the box has some nice artwork on it and I can't imagine throwing it away.
The 8-disc set is limited, but at the time of this writing is still available from several internet retailers. Media Asia is planning a different 6-disc package for later this year that will contain the three movies and supplements but no miniseries re-cut. The packaging states that the discs are coded for Region 3 playback only, but in fact the discs are all-region NTSC formatted and will function in any American DVD player.
Be wary of the many mainland China DVD releases from Zoke Culture, which are known to be lesser quality and only contain a Mandarin dub soundtrack, with no option for the original Cantonese audio.
The first movie is very sharp with excellent detail and only minimal edge enhancement artifacts. Some grainy shots against the sky look a little noisy and digital, and there are some other minor compression flaws, but on the whole it's a nice-looking image. Colors and black level are very well represented, though the contrast level seems a little hot. Pure white objects such as the shirt that Sam wears in the opening scene bloom and exhibit some white crush. This seems to be a stylistic choice, however, as it looked exactly the same on the original DVD release. In direct comparison to the old DVD, the new disc has less edge enhancement and slightly richer colors and blacks. More importantly, the dirt and other print artifacts that were sporadically visible before have been completely cleaned up. It's not perfect, but it's still very nice indeed.
The second movie is the least visually appealing. It has a darker and softer photographic style, and as transferred to disc looks a little dupey and overly processed. It still looks fine overall, but is a small step down from the other two movies. The last movie has the slickest photography and the least digital compression flaws in its DVD transfer. The image appears superficially sharp at first glance, but lacks fine detail upon closer examination. Still, I have few serious complaints, and fans should be pleased with the transfers for all three movies.
The Dolby Digital is fine too, but hot damn the fidelity of that DTS track is terrific.
Parts II and III are very good as well, even if they don't pack the same punch. Since both sequels were produced back-to-back, the sound mixes feel a little rushed and not as refined as the original, but are still plenty good and can knock you out when they want to.
Mandarin dub tracks are also provided in Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitle options include English as well as both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. The English translation is very good with no major flubs.
To start, I should mention that almost all of the supplements from the original 2-disc sets have been directly ported over. In fact, discs 4 and 6 of this set are 100% identical to the supplement discs for their respective movies (save for the artwork printed on them). Only the first movie has new bonus items devoted to it. Two important features found on the earlier sets are now missing. I will get to that as I tackle each disc in order:
The first disc contains, obviously enough, the first movie. An audio commentary by the cast and crew is available in Cantonese, sadly without any English translation, making it useless for most non-Chinese viewers.
Missing: The original DVD offered the ability to watch the first movie in either its theatrical cut or with an alternate ending. For the new set, that alternate footage is only available as a supplement on the second disc. This isn't a huge loss, as the alternate ending stank anyway and contradicts the events of the sequels. There's no good reason to watch the whole movie through just to get to it.
The second disc contains a mix of both old content recycled from the original DVD and brand new content, conveniently identified on separate menu pages. Of the recycled content, we have:
For brand new content, there is:
Finally, we get the Other Territories section, in which is found the following:
The second movie also has an audio commentary by the cast and crew, again without English translation (though this time Traditional and Simplified Chinese subtitles are offered for the commentary).
Disc 4 is completely identical to the supplement disc available on the old DVD. Annoyingly, the disc starts up with a commercial for camera phones. Fortunately, the commercial is skippable. The selection of bonus features will seem familiar if you've watched those for the first movie:
The fifth disc has no supplements at all, not even a commentary. I guess the cast and crew said all they had to say over the first two movies. The original DVD didn't have a commentary either.
Missing: The old DVD offered the choice of watching the last movie in either its 107-minute Theatrical Cut or a 118-minute Director's Cut. The new disc does not allow that choice. It contains only the longer Director's Cut. I suppose more is better and we shouldn't complain.
Once again, the supplement disc is a direct port of that available on the original DVD release. Unfortunately, it also begins with a forced commercial, this time for Saab, and worse this one is not skippable. I recommend hitting STOP and then MENU to bypass it. The bonus material for the third movie is a little skimpier as well:
The third movie apparently didn't even rate any deleted scenes or a "Confidential File".
Here we come to the real meat of box set's bonus features, the 5-hour consolidated miniseries edit of all three films. Very similar to what had once been done to the Godfather films for TV syndication, all three movies were completely re-edited so that their scenes run in chronological order. Since the movies were not originally designed to be watched that way, this does lead to some jumpy transitions where it is obvious that not enough connective scenes were filmed for every storyline. However, truth be told, many of the events from the second movie make clearer sense when you watch them in this order.
I would not choose to make this the default method for watching the trilogy (several of the flashbacks from the third movie contain on-screen text spoilers for later events, such as "7 Days Before…", assuming you've already seen those parts in the first two movies). For those who are already familiar with the storyline, though, it's a fascinating reworking of the material and is worth watching at least once.
The miniseries footage is all taken from the same anamorphic video transfers as the movies themselves, and offers the same choices in Dolby Digital or DTS audio with English or Chinese subtitles (both Traditional and Simplified). Frustratingly, you are forced to go through the entire menu system and set-up options when watching the second half of the program on the last disc.