Themes and Political Context
In the original Hong Kong version of Infernal Affairs, the use of the gangster genre label, and the resultant violent occupations of the film’s protagonists, are all less a means to depict over-the-top violence than they are a way to “explore moral ambiguities through the cultural contextualization of Buddhist teachings.” This is a stark contrast to what film critic David Bordwell calls the “overblown” presentation of The Departed, which is the American remake of that Hong Kong film. But even though Infernal Affairs forgoes the Hong Kong action movie tropes related to excessive violence, it does not jettison all the themes related to action and gangster genres, such as the use of violent domains as exceptional places where the chaos of identity is explored. Infernal Affairs’ measure of restraint and inclusion of the popular postmodern theme of the loss of identity, made explicit with the film’s Buddhist references, also mirror the then-current political reality of some Hong Kongers feeling that their own national identity had been lost, which helped the Infernal Affairs trilogy gain both critical and popular acclaim.
Borrowing America's Style
According to the filmmakers, the Infernal Affairs trilogy’s success was not an accident, but the result of a concerted effort to innovate the genres of Hong Kong action film, gangster film, and undercover agent film. The artists’ goal at the time of the movie’s production in 2002 was to create a film that would reverse the falling box office receipts for Hong Kong cinema, which many thought was finished as a viable business because of increased competition from both video piracy and imported American films. Attendance for films was around 20 million ticket holders per year, down from 60 million in the 1980s, and filmmakers Andrew Lau and Alan Mak knew that a different approach would be necessary to succeed in the marketplace. “We wanted our film to be different from previous Hong Kong movies,” said Lau. “If we don’t change, we’ll die.” So the filmmakers set out to partially mimic American cinema, or at least favor character drama over action set-pieces, both in conception and in production, which is certainly in line with the long history of Hong Kongers borrowing and integrating foreign cultural elements into a distinct Hong Kong ethnic identity. Bordwell describes the trilogy as “a deliberate effort to break away from the hell-for-leather action film, [and] the IA trio showed that Hong Kong filmmakers could construct a taut, restrained crime plot...Many recent crime films have taken their cues from the trilogy’s huge box-office success.”
In other words, Infernal Affairs was a natural fit for an American remake because it had already integrated Hollywood’s norms, which sometimes resulted in a mercenary approach to production. For example, knowing that audiences would want several scenes between the two big stars in the first part, Lau asked Mak to create exactly six such scenes. And when the success of the first film led to the production of a sequel, the filmmakers had to deal with the issue of many popular characters being dead. In order to bring back the movie’s stars for a sequel, Infernal Affairs II and III used a non-linear time narrative, a technique made popular in part by Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino and other Western filmmakers.
However, other techniques borrowed from American cinema are more subtle in their presentation. One such technique is an early example of misdirection that turns out to be a significant clue about a character’s true identity. In the first film’s scene of the cops attempting and then aborting a raid on Sam’s Triad gang, covert calls made by Yan and Ming pepper the proceedings. But at one point, Inspector Billy answers a call and is reprimanded for violating radio silence. It is only in retrospect, when Billy is revealed as another mole in the police department, that the audience realizes that the earlier dramatically deflating moment of misdirection could imply that Billy is tipping off Sam. As Bordwell states, such suggestive storytelling is rare in Hong Kong film, but well-used in Infernal Affairs. But despite all these techniques, Infernal Affairs and its successful sequels were not able to turn the tide for Hong Kong cinema in the new millennium.
The Failing Commercial Viability of HK Cinema
Competition From America and Other Film Markets
Even today, there are clear dangers facing the continued commercial viability of Hong Kong cinema. Directors like Lau and Mak feel obliged to integrate popular techniques of American Cinema in order to compete with American films in the marketplace, but they do so at the risk of sacrificing cultural authenticity, all the while having their efforts dismissed by some as not having the “same depth” as the American film that copies them. However, there may be some consolation in the fact that at least this is not a new cycle for the continuing evolution of Hong Kong film. Critic Stephen Teo describes the cinematic history of Hong Kong as littered with tsaan pin, or genres such as opera films and melodramas that were abandoned as filmmakers transitioned in the latter 20th century to more popular genres like martial arts, action, and of course gangster films. Cultural authenticity and ethnic identity, again, are mutable concepts, and Hong Kong’s political shifts and rapid economic ascension in the 20th century created a unique stage for Hong Kong filmmakers to explore these concepts.
But will that stage always exist? In the years following Infernal Affairs’ release, ticket sales for Hong Kong films continued to decline, to the point where in 2009, local productions accounted for only a fifth of total receipts. Yet many Hong Kong filmmakers have experienced crossover success with American film productions, including John Woo (Hard Target, Mission Impossible II), Tsui Hark (Double Team), and Ringo Lam (Maximum Risk), suggesting that there is some appeal in foregoing complete cultural authenticity for the sake of appealing to a larger audience. On the other hand, if these directors were motivated to participate in the production of American films for purely financial reasons, and thus adopted false artistic identities for the sake of a paycheck, it could be said that they themselves have become undercover agents, potentially haunted by the existential agony of acting against the filmmaking equivalent of the code of yi.
Andrew Lau and Alan Mak represent a curious dichotomy in the discussion of Hong Kong’s place in world cinema. While Mak was quite vocal in his disdain for what he saw as the shortcomings of the American remake of his film, Lau has recently joined forces with those same American filmmakers to produce another gangster film. On February 23, 2013, it was announced that Martin Scorsese will executive produce the Lau-directed Revenge of the Green Dragons, an American film that will tell the true life story of a Chinese gang war in 1980s New York City. For Lau, at least, it seems that an identity as a global filmmaker trumps a purely nationalistic identification with Hong Kong cinema alone, but it remains to be seen how his latest effort compares to the films that brought him international attention in the first place.