Infernal Affairs (Wai-keung Lau & Alan Mak, 2002)


Andy Lau (Inspector Lau Kin Ming), Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Chen Wing Yan), Sammi Cheng (Mary), Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (SP Wong Chi Shing). Screenplay by Felix Chong and Alan Mak. Directed by Alan Mak and Wai-keung Lau. Rating: 15. Running time: 101 minutes.

Watching a Hong Kong film from the perspective of the Western world is sometimes just not the same as watching any other film in a foreign language. I do not speak Spanish, but I’ve learnt to somehow connect with and completely follow the humour packed into the tone of voice and delivery of Almodovar’s dialogue. Nor did watching Biutiful in that language impede its emotional impact. And yet Cantonese is, quite simply, something else: every sound so sharp, stunted and seemingly monosyllabic as to almost render the audio worthless. Watching various Officer Wongs go mental spouting out rapid fire lines that the subtitles struggle to keep up with may be amusing, but it’s also a pain in the arse to listen to when the sounds are about as comprehensible as the barks of a pack of dogs.

Perhaps it is the fact that my previous encounters with Hong Kong cinema – Wong Kar-wai and Hard Boiled – have been so image-based that it has taken me until now to notice this, but it truly is hard to appreciate Infernal Affairs in a way that tragically justifies the common man’s reservations about foreign cinema. When so much hinges on following police and Triad talk here, and the plot is so crucial to the film as a whole, staying focused becomes more like a task in mental resilience than a relaxed appreciation of art. In fact, I’m almost certain that if it wasn’t for a familiarity with The Departed I would have lost track of this one entirely within the first half hour. Thinking of the parallel scenes replicated in Boston was like a guidebook through this madhouse, and remembering some of the lines Jack Nicholson had the delight of delivering only frustrates one further when you realise no such similar appreciation is possible here. The acting may be equally excellent, the cinematography well done and the pacing, if anything, superior. But imagine watching a film as dialogue-dependent as The Social Network without a knowledge of English, and you’ll start to understand why this can never, ever work.

I must finish with a question about the music: why on earth is the death of a macho gangster or policeman constantly followed by some cheesy camp-pop 80s tunes similar to a song like ‘Take My Breath Away’ coming on? Totally bizarre. Another quirk, I suppose, to add to the excessive alienation unfortunately already felt.

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