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Anxiety and Identity in the Infernal Affairs Trilogy

By Edited Sep 3, 2016 1 0

Undercover Agents in Hong Kong

What is True Identity?

Perhaps no Hong Kong undercover agent film series better exemplifies the then-present cultural anxiety of the city-state than the Infernal Affairs trilogy, where existential agony is presented in a way that readily invites psychoanalysis of the subjective nature of individual identity. In contrast to earlier Hong Kong gangster films, which featured extended scenes of gunplay and fantastic martial arts violence, the Infernal Affairs films are what David Bordwell describes as “anti-Woo action pictures,” where the mise en scene is “calm, understated, almost flat.”[1]

Infernal Affairs tells the story of a mafia mole infiltrating the Hong Kong police force and his counterpart, an undercover cop planted in the triads. Drug lord Sam Hon (Eric Tsang) recruits Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau) to become a fake police detective, while police superintendent Wong Chi Shing (Anthony Wong) assigns police recruit Chan Wing Yan (Tony Leung) to work as an undercover operative inside Sam’s gang. And even though Yan and Ming belong to organizations at odds with each other, the connection between the two protagonists is demonstrated at various points in the films as a sign that the code of yi is more powerful than the code of law.

The first indication of Yan and Ming’s homosocial relationship happens during the first adult encounter between them, when Ming goes to buy a stereo from an electronics vendor. Yan is in the store at the same time, and pretends to be a salesman by recommending an audio cable. However, Ming shows Yan a better one from the store’s stock. Bordwell suggests this scene implies that Yan will always be a beat behind, just as the triads are always a beat ahead of the police, but the two protagonists remain blissfully ignorant of the subtext, instead bonding over a mutual admiration for Cantopop ballads. This scene is perhaps an intentional callback or homage to a similar scene in The Killer, where Ah Jong and his police counterpart, Inspector Li are seen (in different locations) sitting in the same chair listening to the same song.

Another possible reason for Ming getting one up on Yan is the disparity in their lifestyles as a result of their assumed identities. As a false triad gangster, Yan is seemingly coming apart at the seams, sampling cocaine and living off ramen. Meanwhile, Lau lives in a nice apartment and wears expensive suits to his job at police headquarters, where he is quickly climbing the ranks of the organization. But all of these external signifiers do not tell the audience as much about Yan and Ming as an exploration of their relationships with the women in their lives.

Both Ming and Yan have important social connections not just with each other, but also with several female characters, all of whom shine light on certain aspects of the protagonists’ true identities. To start with, Ming has a vaguely Oedipal bond with a mother/lover figure named Mary. Although this is early in Ming’s life, it is information that arrives later in the trilogy’s narrative, during the prequel Infernal Affairs II. Mary is the woman who gets Ming to initially accept a relationship with quasi-paternal figure and triad gangster Sam. Mary is married to Sam, but unbeknownst to her husband, she is also under the employ of Inspector Wong. Her true loyalties are a mystery, though, because although she knows that Ming is an informer planted in the police department, she never shares this information with Wong. No one, not Wong, Sam, Mary, or Ming, is truly sincere or open about the knowledge they have of each other's true identities, and so their loyalties are constantly suspect. Tragically, Ming is ignorant of Mary’s attempts to protect him from discovery as a mole. He knows only that she will not take him as a lover, and reacts to this rejection by having her killed at the airport.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Ming later meets and starts dating a second Mary, his fiancee (Sammi Cheng), who later influences Ming in his decisions to (pretend to) be a cop. Although she is unaware that her lover is a triad gangster, this Mary potentially suspects that Ming is not entirely who he seems, as she explains to him that she’s writing a novel about a man with twenty-eight personalities. This could be interpreted as coincidence or intuition, but the implication haunts Ming regardless, especially when she poses the question of who this man is when he wakes up each morning.

As for Yan, the appointed psychiatrist Lee Sum Yee (Kelly Chen) is the only person he feels able to be completely open and honest with, even though she initially does not believe the facts of his undercover identity. As with Mary and Ming’s conversation about true identity upon waking, a similar motif is explored between Dr. Lee and Yan, who is only capable of getting restful sleep on the therapist’s couch.

Later in the first film of the Infernal Affairs trilogy, Ming tries to untangle himself from his duties to the Triad gangsters by killing the triad leader and his own quasi-father figure, Sam. Proscribed identity is clearly less important to Ming than the identity he wants to assign himself. This is made clear in the film by a flashback to Sam telling a young Ming “You choose your own future.” Ming then vows to reinstate Yan’s identity, who has been undercover so long that no one else knows his true identity as a policeman. External forces mark him for all intents and purposes as a criminal, but similarly to Ming, the more important factor for Yan is his self-determined personal identity. Still, both Yan and Ming know that bringing their personal identities into alignment with external perceptions is a necessary step for psychological cohesion. Towards that purpose, Ming surrenders himself to Yan, stating his intentions to reform in the eyes of the law. However, before such a transformation of identity is made legitimate, Ming is “rescued” by another police mole, Billy, who shoots Yan in order to protect Ming’s Triad identity. Ming shoots his rescuer in retaliation for the murder of Chen, as well as to try once again to distance himself from a Triad identity.

Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in the film Infernal Affairs

Violence in Infernal Affairs

Quick Bursts

These scenes play as quick bursts of violence in a movie with “maybe thirty seconds of gun scenes,” according to screenwriter Chong, “and everything else is concentrated on the dramatic elements.”[1]

Ming especially is not a character prone to passionate bursts of violence. While he does shoot Billy and Triad boss Sam, Ming does so with a sterile passivity, and he does not often show any outward signs of emotional distress. At Yan’s funeral near the end of the first film, Ming continues to demonstrate an outward stoicism, contrasted by Dr. Lee’s mourning for Yan. Yan has been revealed in death as an undercover agent, and his heroic death and adherence to the code of yi has earned Dr. Lee’s devotion. Meanwhile, Ming survives and prospers at work but loses Mary, who has discovered the falseness of his assumed identity.

Despite his external passivity, Yan’s death deeply affects Ming, who demonstrates symptoms of psychosis after the death of Yan. He imagines becoming Yan, with similar actions, repeated words, and undertaking the task to find the Triad mole. In short, Ming adopts a new, immolating identity as restitution for his inability to save Yan. This is best described by the Buddhist Nirvana Sutra that is shown to the audience at the beginning of the film: “The worst of the Eight Hells is called Continuous Hell. It has the meaning of Continuous Suffering.” This Continuous (Avici) Hell is created by Ming’s knowledge that he has betrayed the code of yi, and thus betrayed his own true identity, so his own internal torment takes the place of external repercussions at the conclusion of the first film in the trilogy.



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  1. David Bordwell Planet Hong Kong: Popular cinema and the art of entertainment. Madison, WI: Irvington Way Institute Press, 2011.

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