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Infernal Affairs Trilogy, The
There was a period of time where the Infernal Affairs Trilogy, debuting on domestic Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, was reasonably well known thanks to the fact that it was the inspiration for Martin Scorcesse's The Departed. For those not in the know, Scorcese's critically acclaimed film is a remake of these three pictures that came out of Hong Kong a few years before. If Scorcese's movie gets a few interested film buffs to check out the trilogy, so much the better as they really are excellent films.
Here's a look at how the movies play out.
When the first movie begins, Chan Wing Yan (Tony Leung) and Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau) are training to become police officers. Chan Wing Yan is kicked out of the academy so that he can be used as an undercover operative and before you know it, he's working as a mole inside a triad gang lead by Sam (Eric Tsang). The only person who knows Yan's identity is Supervisor Wong (Anthony Wong), the man in charge of taking down the triads. What Wong doesn't know, at least initially, is that the triads have a mole of their own working from within their ranks, and it's Ming.
When both the triads and the police figure out that someone in their group is feeding information to the other side, they race to find out who the guilty parties are before the other. Neither Wing nor Yan are aware of the other's positioning, although they'll both wind up trying to find one another to keep their respective employers happy.
On the surface, Infernal Affairs is simply a fantastic and insanely tense one-hundred minute cat and mouse game but if you dig just a little deeper you'll also realize just how well handled the subtle characterizations are. While it's true that a big portion of the movie's success depends on the tension that occurs while the two moles are at work and trying not to get caught, it's the little details that add up to make one big, crazy picture. While the movie starts very quickly, little details about Wing and Yan's lives are fed to us a little at a time so that when the big finale comes we actually feel for both characters enough for it to matter which is a testament to the directing skills of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak.
The film isn't perfect. There are a few moments that are too melodramatic (not unusual in Hong Kong cinema) and the score borders on the inappropriate in a couple of key scene, but it is close enough. It's also worth noting that the scenes where Ming interacts with his fiancé and Yan talks mushy love stuff with his psychiatrist don't really do too much to further the plot of the movie (you could argue that they make the characters more human and that this show us a side of their life that takes place outside of work). Those expecting a bullet ballet style action film might not be too impressed with the way the movie pans out as it's not at all a shoot'em up nor is it a Naked Killer style exploitation film like the cover art for this disc implies. Instead it's as much a psychological thriller as it is a cops and robbers story and so much the better. The story and the pacing not only bring us into the world these characters inhabit but the interesting parallels that the scripts draws between the two leads adds a whole other layer to the story that is worth examining. The fact that these parallels are in turn reflected in the characters of Sam and Supervisor Wong does an interesting job of showing how similar these organizations, which work on completely opposite sides of the law, are in both the way they are structured and the way that they operate. It's also interesting to watch the two leads grow through the film. Neither of them are the same person at the end of the movie than they are at the beginning and again, it just makes the ending all the more poignant and dramatic. The cinematography is appropriately gritty and, when it needs to be, quite slick (watch the rooftop scene towards the end for proof of that) and the performances are uniformly strong across the board making sure that the characters are believable and interesting.
Infernal Affairs II:
When the first film hit box office gold, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak decided to revisit familiar ground though rather than make a sequel (which would have been tough) they opted to travel back in about ten years to show us what it was like for Yan and Ming in their younger days. The majority of the cast returns, Eric Tsang and Anthony Wong being the two heavy hitters, though this time the leads are played by Edison Chen and Shawn Yue, the two younger actors who played the characters in the flashback scenes from the first movie.
When this movie starts off the head of the Ngai triads is killed and his son, Hau (Francis Ng), moves in to replace him. Sam, the triad boss from the first movie, is obviously none too attached to Hau and wouldn't mind seeing he and his gang completely wiped out. Sam is also unusually friendly with Supervisor Wong, who also has a vested interest in seeing Hau's gang brought to their knees. While these two are carefully collaborating on how to make that happen, they're also sending in their respective moles, Wing and Yan, into one another's organizations.
If you enjoyed the Sam and Wong characters from the first film then it's entirely possible that you'll appreciate this prequel even more than the original movie as this time around, there's as much focus on these two and how they deal with the problem that Hau represents as there is on Wing and Yan. While this is a considerably more melodramatic movie than the one that was made just a year before it, it's still a strong entry in the mythology that the original created and Lau and Mak handle the material well even if it isn't quite as good as their first attempt. Again, the scenes involving the female characters don't work as well and while Edison Chen and Shawn Yue are definitely fine actors who do a very good job with their roles, they're not quite on the same level as Andy Lau or Tony Leung. The movie also introduces a few too many characters during its opening scenes, which makes the first part of the picture just a little bit confusing. Granted, by the time the ending comes around it's all been cleared up but this could potentially put off those with a short attention span.
Even with a few flaws, however, Infernal Affairs II is a good film. It's interesting how the filmmaker's contrast the changing of power in the Ngai gang to the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese. It's also interesting how the story fleshes out bits and pieces of various characters' back-stories, which are hinted at in the original movie. We know that Wong and Sam knew one another in the first movie but this time around we learn how and why they have the relationship that they do. We also learn how Tony Leung's character came to have the Triad connections that he's got in the first movie and that proves to be quite interesting. The problem is that if we've seen the first movie, we know where it's all heading and so it just isn't as suspenseful. It's still a very well made and well acted picture, but it's not quite on par with what came before it.
Infernal Affairs III:
The third and final film in the series does double duty, filling in the blanks between what happened between Infernal Affairs II and Infernal Affairs as well as telling us what happened after Infernal Affairs.
The film begins with Ming (once again played by Andy Lau) still working for the police. Unfortunately for him, his past has caught up with him and the girl he was to marry in the first movie has left him for greener pastures. Things aren't going so smoothly for him at work either, as since the police have fingered him for his involvement in the events that took place in Infernal Affairs he's essentially been demoted to a paper pusher, chained to his desk. Once things are smoothed over in that department, he is given back his position in the Internal Affairs department where he's given the unenviable task of taking care of whatever Triad moles might still be remaining in the ranks of the police force.
Ming eventually makes a few connections and finds out who the traitors are, taking justice into his own hands and making them pay for their crimes (and in a sense, for his own). From there, Inspector Yeung (Leon Lai) starts to pay closer attention to what Ming has been up to, though Ming suspects that Yeung might be a mole himself.
Infernal Affairs III is the weakest of the three movies but it's still definitely worth seeing just to find out how a few of the loose ends are tied up. Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang return again in a few flashback scenes as does Tony Leung but the bulk of this film is dedicated to Andy Lau's Ming and the consequences that he must face for his own actions. The reliance on a few flashback scenes hurts the movie in spots and complicates the picture's flow and it's almost as if the filmmakers felt that they needed to throw in a few unnecessary plot twists in an attempt to out do what they'd accomplished with the first two films in the series.
As a wrap up to the series, Infernal Affairs isn't as good as it should have been but as a follow up to Ming's story, it's still pretty decent. Lau's character is fleshed out further and his attempts to redeem himself and to keep doing the right thing journeys from well meaning to obsessive. Despite the tendency to jump around a fair bit it is quite well written and there's certainly enough of interest in the movie that it won't have any problems holding your attention. One can't help but feel that it should have all ended on a somewhat stronger note than it does when the end credits role, but it's still a satisfying experience and the trilogy, as a whole, is one of the finest crime dramas to come out of Hong Kong in quite some time.
Each of the three films in this set is presented in its original 2.38.1 widescreen aspect ratio in AVC encoded 1080p high definition on a 50GB Blu-ray disc. Taken from 4k restorations from the original 35mm negatives, these generally look good, if never reference quality. Detail easily surpasses the previous DVD editions but never quite rises to the top of where you'd hope new 4k HD restorations would land. At least part of this would seem to be how the movies were shot, with the films leaning towards a cooler color palette, one that never really pops much. This can and does affect the way that skin tones look in the transfers. There is detail and depth to appreciate here, but again, it won't blow you away. The transfers are very clean, retaining some natural film grain and showing no really noticeable print damage. Some mild to moderate digital noise reduction seems to be a factor here as well, making skin look overly smooth and a little waxy at times.
Each of the three films in this set comes with the original Cantonese language track presented in 24-bit DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. Optional subtitles are provided across the board in both English only. Aside from a few spots here and there where the levels fluctuate a bit, the 5.1 tracks are nice and strong. The majority of the dialogue comes from the front of the surround set up with the rear channels used quite effectively to throw various sound effects and background noises at you. This builds atmosphere nicely and also really helps with the more action-intensive scenes in the trilogy. Bass response is tight and strong although there are a few scenes where it could have been just a bit stronger, and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. Note that the English dubbed tracks included on the older Dragon Dynasty DVD editions have not been ported over, but that isn't much of a loss as they were fairly horrible.
Of course, the extras as they pertain to each of the three movies in this collection appear on their respective discs. Here's what you'll find and where you'll find it:
Extras start off with an audio commentary from Andrew Lau, Alan Mak, and Felix Chong. Its' a very detailed track that goes into a lot of depth about the making of the movie, where a lot of the ideas came from, working with the different cast and crew members, locations, memories of shooting specific scenes and how they feel about the movie overall.
From there, dig into the thirty-nine minute interview with Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. They go over how they became rabid film fans at a young age, how they came to know one another and work together, where a lot of the ideas for the trilogy came from, getting the cast and crew together and putting the films together.
Hong Kong Noir is a twenty-four minute featurette that is an archival interview from 2007 with Alan Mak, writer Felix Chong and Hong International Film Festival director Peter Tsi that goes over the impact that the films had and the influence that political and social issues of the day had on their origins.
The disc also includes a fifteen minute featurette entitled, appropriately enough, The Making Of Infernal Affairs which is a fairly standard making of documentary that features some interesting interviews with various cast and crew members involved in the production. The interviews cover casting, acting, the script and the filmmaker's intent behind making the film in the first place. It isn't particularly comprehensive but it does provide a look at what the people who made this movie were going for.
This disc also contains a nine minute featurette called Confidential File: A Behind The Scenes Look At Infernal Affairs which is essentially just a few minutes' worth of random behind the scenes footage presented here without any real context. What does make this bit worthwhile is that even without the context it does show us how a few key moments in the movie were set up and shot and for that reason it's worth checking out for the curious.
Rounding out the extras on this disc are an Alternate Ending (which this review won't spoil, just let it suffice to say that the filmmaker's chose the right ending and that this alternate one simply isn't as appropriate), a twenty-four minute reel of outtakes, the film's international trailer and the film's original Chinese trailer. Menus and chapter stops for the feature are also provided.
Infernal Affairs II:
Andrew Lau, Alan Mak, and Felix Chong provide another commentary on the second films that, again, goes into a lot of detail about the making of the picture. The three participants discuss locations, writing the film, bringing some of the cast members back as well as bringing new characters in and more. Note that the commentary from the older US DVD release featuring Siu Fai Mak, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, Carina Lau, Chapman To and a few other people involved in the picture is not included on this disc.
Up next is the first of two featurettes, the twenty-two minute The Making of Infernal Affairs II. It's your standard behind the scenes segment that contains interviews with the cast members who explain how happy they were to work on the project interspersed with some behind the scenes footage. The second featurette, the six minute Confidential File, is simply a montage of more behind the scenes footage presented without narration or context. It's interesting in that it shows how some of the effects were handled, but some narration would have helped make more sense out of this material.
Rounding out the extra features is a selection of deleted scenes and bloopers, a trailer for the film as well as menus and chapter stops for the feature.
Infernal Affairs III:
Extras on the third and final disc start out with a seventeen minute collection of interviews with the principal cast and crew members that recollect what it was like working on this third and final film in the trilogy. The disc also includes a thirteen minute featurette entitled The Making of Infernal Affairs III. This segment follows the same formula as the ‘making of' documentaries on the first two discs in that it splices in behind the scenes footage with some talking head interview segments to give us a rough idea of what it was like to work on the project.
Rounding out the extra features is a trailer as well as menus and chapter stops for the feature.
Included inside the slipcover packaging alongside the three discs in the set is a full color insert booklet containing an essay on the film by Justing Chang titled Double Blind as well as cast and crew details for each of the three movies in the set and notes on the technical presentations.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of Infernal Affairs Trilogy gives three very strong films a solid high definition upgrade. The presentation, if not exactly reference quality, is at least still a big step up from the older DVD releases and there's a great selection of extra features included here as well. Highly recommended.rn
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.