The Continuous Hell is among the 18 Hells, and as we often say, the Continuous Hell is the lowest, the worst… Once in Continuous Hell, you won’t get out.
—Alan Mak Siu-Fai, “Making Of Infernal Affairs”
Good and evil is so difficult to distinguish. Where you draw the line depends on individual judgment.
—Eric Tsang, “Making Of Infernal Affairs”
Infernal Affairs begins with an explanatory flashback. Though it’s hardly a subtle trick, the sequence does quickly establish the difficult relationship of two youthful police trainees and gangster wannabes—Lau (Edison Chen) and Yan (Shawn Yue). All about diligence and dedication to their chosen dual-careers, the two line up with their fellow recruits at a temple, where they hear a lecture from a Triad leader named Sam (Eric Tsang), instructing them on the hardships they will face as his “eyes and ears inside the police force.” The following few minutes trace exactly those exertions, to the point that street kid Yan is seemingly kicked out of the police academy for too many infractions.
Flashforward 10 years: Ming (now played by Andy Lau) is a Sergeant in the Criminal Intelligence Bureau, and Yan (grown up to be Tony Leung) is working deep undercover deep inside Sam’s organization, at the behest of Police Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong). While it appears that they are working on opposite sides, the film will go on to show the extent to which their goals and strategies are severely entwined, as well as the similarities between the sorts of stress and corruption that make them both weary. As Wong worries that his favorite agent, recently “busted for assault three times, has forgotten he’s a cop and is “acting like a real criminal,” Yan is frustrated that he’s unable to get out. “You told me,” he grits his teeth, “It’s only for three years, but you extend it over and over.”
While this sounds like Wong has been using some insidious stop-loss angle on Yan’s contract, as Wong sees it, he’s only using the best weapon he has in his lifelong battle against the Triads, and Sam’s group in particular. Both men are angry when they first meet atop a Tokyo high-rise, but slowly, as the camera swoops around them (the film’s “visual consultant” is Christopher Doyle), they come to an agreement that yes, Yan will continue, and yes, Wong will provide him with the latest technology and backup, in order to bring down the bad guys. At this point, they believe they know who the bad guys are.
At around the same time, Ming—brash expert in the box—interrogates a suspect at police headquarters, gathering information on the next shipment Sam’s men are taking. His work is apparently excellent on this very tense night of back-and-forth surveillance and anticipation between cops and crooks that results in a failed drug bust, cuing everyone that moles exist on both sides. And so Ming is promoted, assigned to finding the mole inside the department (that is, himself). This at the same time that Sam realizes there’s double-agent inside his group. Suddenly the two former classmates are placed in uncomfortably similar positions, lying to their colleagues and eventually themselves in order to achieve ostensibly loftier ends. Drawing from the sorts of double identity plots familiar from John Woo’s work with Chow Yun Fat, Wai Keung Lau and Alan Mak Siu-Fai’s thriller/character study at once deploys and inverts the conventions of this mini-genre, twisting up expectations until the film leaves little room for the characters to find right things to do.
Infernal Affairs (actually, the first of three films, produced within two years and zapping a slowed Hong Kong film industry) is endlessly stylish. Released on DVD with minimal extras (including an enthusiastic “Making of Infernal Affairs”; “Confidential File,” a behind-the-scenes featurette; and an alternate ending), the film is deftly paced, more tense than frantic. The tension builds in separate scenes—as Ming and Yan come ever closer to discovering one another—and yet their concerns and failures are so analogous that their burdens seem shared rather than collision
Such taut focus evokes impending doom in wide open spaces, so these seem as perilous as enclosed sets (kitchens and also cars, as in the harrowing few minutes when Yan must deal, undercover, with the murder of a close friend he’s not supposed to have, trying to hang onto his false identity in front of his gangster driver who is also, unbeknownst to Yan at the moment, dying of a gunshot wound). In addition to that rooftop (which does indeed prove to be a trap, unsurprisingly), another outdoors set becomes menacing when Ming learns of his new assignment. He stands on a golf green, watching his boss address and swing at a ball. The camera fixes on the two men, one by one, first on the ground, pointed up at Ming (the blue of the sky and puffy white clouds behind him feeling downright oppressive); Ming agrees, reluctantly, just as his superior whomps the ball and the camera looks out at the fairway, the boss’s voice wafting over air: “Time to broaden your horizons.” Cut to the next scene on the clangy thud of a heavy metallic door closing, and the camera picks up Yan walking into Sam’s basement headquarters, passing a conversation between two other thugs over one’s “real name.” As Yan knows all too well, even early in the film, no one’s “real name” is quite so stable as he believes.
The ever-potential collapse of this fragile notion of identity becomes =even clearer in the next scene, when Ming meets with Sam in a cinema, and is spotted by a watchful Yan in a rear seat. As Ming walks out through a lengthy and complicated hallway structure, Yan follows after his receding back, attempting to ascertain the impostor among his supposed cohort, the gang. Their similarly slim figures and dark clothing makes them seem alike in the dark shadows of the hallway and alley behind the theater. When Yan’s phone goes off, he turns away from his prey to take the call—ironically and aptly, from Sam, calling him in to work—and suddenly the directions of the two men change: Yan turns away as Ming looks on his back.
Much as they become reflections of one another, the men are afforded briefly noted romantic lives, if only to ensure their heterosexuality amid their intensely shared and abhorred intimacy. While Ming is moving to a fancy new apartment with his sweet fiancée Mary (Sammi Cheng), he’s lying to her with nearly every breath (the phone rings and he’s got to report to Sam, but can only tell her he’s due at “work,” and what she thinks this means, exactly, especially given the fine furnishings in their new flat, is unknown). At around the same time, Yan awakens in the office of his officially mandated shrink, Dr. Lee (Kelly Chen), with whom he might initiate a relationship if he weren’t so twisted and screwed by the job (and a lingering affection for his ex, played in one scene by Elva Hsiao). “It’s not what it looks like,” he doesn’t quite explain to her. That much seems absolutely true.
As the boys must remain entangled with one another first and foremost, all other relationships must be secondary, clever ways to fill in broad outlines. This primary relationship between Yan and Ming is the film’s relentless heartbeat, no matter where they hide or with whom they spend time. Their initially parallel descents into the film’s metaphorical hell eventually bring them together, in incessantly mobile frames that highlight their movement toward one another. As the film posits their resemblance, it also shows the worlds in which they move—ordered by cops and gangsters—are equally corrupt and earnest, loyal and treacherous.