AKA: Wu jian dao 2
“The bad guys get everything. The good guys end up with nothing” ruminates Superintendent Wong dryly at the beginning of this prequel to the superb Infernal Affairs from 2002. And it’s a statement that seems to infuse the mood of the entire movie, much as it did the original, like a storm cloud waiting to burst.
If you thought the first movie was at times a little convoluted, then this prequel, which establishes how the characters came to their relative positions in the first movie, will be downright dizzying. And that’s partly because directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak won’t be holding your hand. Indeed, if you’ve not already seen the superb original, then make sure you do, because you’ll get much more out of this prequel, even if on its own terms it just about makes sense. Within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, so many new characters are introduced, adding depth to the overlapping police and triad spheres of the saga, that you’ll really need to pay attention. Luckily, it’s definitely worth it, and definitely worth watching more than once.
With some of the movie set over a decade before the events of the original, this necessitates that younger actors play the main supermoles of Ming and Yan. So we have fairly believable look-alikes Edison Chen and Shawn Yue playing younger incarnations of Andy Lau and Tony Leung respectively. The same actors appeared in the flashback sequences of the original, so an acceptable level of continuity is maintained. And whilst these young actors are clearly very good actors, they’re probably not quite in the same league as Lau and Leung. Not yet, anyway. Cleverly, the directors are aware of this, and don’t make them carry the whole movie, instead choosing to centre the story around superintendent Wong, and up-and-coming triad Sam, played by talented veterans Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang (pictured). It’s this single move alone that makes Infernal Affairs II at least as watchable as the first, something which is evident from the very first scene. Reminiscent of the classic sequence in Michael Mann’s Heat, where Pacino’s cop, and De Niro’s robber come to understand their similarities over coffee, Wong and Sam share dinner at police HQ.
At this time, Sam is some way down the triad chain, and soon we learn how Sam and Wong first insert their moles into the opposing camps. And, as was the case with the original, this central conceit in itself is fairly straightforward, but the repercussions are exponential, not least because the plot pivots around the end of British rule in China in 1997. Used as both a literal and metaphorical signifier of changing relationships between Sam and Superintendent Wong, as well as triad boss Ngai Wing-Hau and the young Ming and Yan, the movie is full of pertinent scenes observing the ambiguity of right and wrong. I say observing, because a huge part of the appeal stems from the fact the movie never tries to force the viewer down one particular perspective. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see how the proposed Hollywood version will address this open structure. Although it’s worth pointing out that the trilogy does owe a lot to Hollywood, and the movies of Michael Mann and then The Godfather in particular.
Visually, Infernal Affairs II is peppered with beautifully framed moments, and the cinematography maintains a strong visual continuity with the original. Period fashion and technology is subtle enough to establish the time period, without drawing attention to itself. Special mention should be made of the music, which is used on more than one occasion to beautiful effect: a choral lament in stark contrast to the visceral violence being taken in by your eyes. Each of the many characters are well-realised, adding several extra layers to the tale. Carina Lau, as Sam’s wife Mary, is particularly notable. Her performance as the resolute and dependable wife, and fantasy figure for the young Ming, is entirely believable, and makes the progression of the characters around her all the more pertinent.
Infernal Affairs II is rich with character detail and nuance, and is an emotive, taut and immensely satisfying drama. It will make you want to return to the first movie, and will have you excited about the forthcoming finale, something which the second part of a movie trilogy often struggles to do. It’s no wonder that Hollywood are going to remake the entire trilogy. Perhaps they’ll rediscover the secret formula while they’re at it, because it’s definitely all in here somewhere…