Comparison’s to The Departed, the Best Picture winning remake directed by Martin Scorsese, seem by this point inevitable. But which is the “better” film is the least interesting question one could ask. For both versions of this tale – of an undercover cop in the triad and a police officer working for the same gang – there is a whole book’s worth of analysis that could be made about how differently the key setpieces are directed, acted, blocked out, scored, edited and paced. Different treatments are needed for two different beasts.
What Infernal Affairs has going for it is its pacing. At 101 minutes it doesn’t let up, crossing from one parallel scenario to the next, and after a melodramatic death will move straight on to the rest of the plot. The disorientation this causes actually makes the ideas of duality and finding morality in hellish environments feel more palpable than just making the movie a superficial epic. Whilst the film may be a loud lean beast with a soundtrack that will rarely let a moment go quiet (your tolerance of which may vary) many of the performances do not match this bombast. The two fantastic performances from from Andy Lau and Tony Leung are of subdued operatics. Whilst large events go on around them they look set to poise themselves and their faces like the carved idols with which the movie begins. They are unable to express themselves in their undercover environments, so feel locked from within.
The melodrama in the film only becomes a problem when it overemphasises theme and character, at which point it can become a little ridiculous. Many people make fun of The Departed’s obsession with symbolic rats, but the discussions about the protagonist of Lau’s wife’s novel – “I don’t know if he is a good or a bad guy” – are equally obvious (as a consequence of Infernal Affairs’ main focuses, female characters often get the short stick). Still, the overcooked theatrics are why we gravitate to these kind of films, to lose ourselves in a heightened reality in which emotion and theme can announce itself and entice you. That reality was only ever lost in the film’s editing, with an over reliance on hazy dissolves and B&W flashbacks to happy-time conversations during significant plot points.
Infernal Affairs is proof that pulpy premise, weighty themes and bombastic presentation can coexist happily and share within each other’s strengths. They can hide in each other’s roles for so long that they become one and the same. For this movie, that sounds fitting.