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Welcome to another episode of Unpopular Opinions with Gabe Powers. Readers may remember that last month’s episode saw me referring to 1994’s popular, ‘game changing’ classics Pulp Fiction and The Lion King as ‘good, but not great’ motion pictures. Tonight I’m back, and will be discussing Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs – a film that changed the landscape of popular Hong Kong crime thrillers in 2002, and which was so popular it led to two sequels, dozens of rip-offs, and a Martin Scorsese remake under the title The Departed, and a Kim Dong-won remake under the title City of Damnation (in Korea). My unpopular opinion on this supposed masterpiece? It’s a pretty mediocre film, or at the very least, one that rarely speaks to my sense of drama or thrills. In an alternate universe Infernal Affairs (which is a dreadful pun of a title I can’t believe more people don’t make fun of) didn’t sweep the Hong Kong Film Award, doesn’t sit at number 32 on the HKFA’s Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures of all time, doesn’t inspire such a rabid fan base, and I’m left to discover a relatively unknown undercover cop vs. undercover criminal thriller on my own. But in this universe, I was fed the acclaim before I saw the film, so my reaction was unavoidably and perhaps unfairly coloured by knowledge of astronomical acclaim.

Infernal Affairs
In the film’s defense, I’ve always assumed that I don’t ‘get’ the atmosphere surrounding Infernal Affairs, and may be missing the fact that it was a reactive, political, or even a post-modern film. In my relatively undereducated eyes it just looks like another entry in the legion of John Woo inspired cops and robbers flicks released in the mid-late ‘90s. It’s less dramatically and emotional satisfying than films like Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (#54 on the HKFA’s list) and Full Contact (not on the list), John Woo’s The Killer (#42), or even Jackie Chan’s more comically-tinged Police Story (#60). Likely the biggest factor in the formation of my unpopular opinion on the film is my utter affection for Woo’s Hard Boiled (another film not mentioned on the HKFA’s list). It’s also my generally unpopular opinion that Hard Boiled is Woo’s, and star Chow Yun-Fat’s, best film. It features the most potent balance of melodrama, operatic violence, and campy humour in Woo’s canon. Infernal Affairs is basically Hard Boiled minus all the fun. If the films had been made in reverse order it would’ve made perfect sense, Woo would’ve been riffing on a dead serious undercover cop drama with his usual brand of slow motion, double-fisted gun-fu. Instead we get two younger, more vigorous filmmakers focusing on the poignant stares and unspoken ideology over the explosive, gratifying violence, and knowing winks at the audience.

The similarities between Hard Boiled and Infernal Affairs are mostly thematic and cosmetic, but they’re still pretty telling, and I believe audiences were meant to make them. Chief among the too on-the-nose to not be meant as referential similarities is the casting of Tony Leung and Anthony Wong. Wong’s casting means a little less, as he plays a heartless, white-collar villain in Hard Boiled, and a heartfelt, blue-collar mentor in Infernal Affairs (perhaps this was meant to be ironic), but Leung plays roughly the same character in both films. In fact, the major differences between Tony and Chan depend on the major differences between Chow Yun-Fat’s Tequila, an antagonist-turned-partner in heroism, and Andy Lau’s, um, Lau is a parallel character that becomes a chief antagonist. Both films feature Leung torn between his dual roles as cop and criminal, and both play his relationship with his superiors as largely paternal. It’s key to note in comparing the narratives that one father figure dies in each scenario, and though they are on opposite sides of the criminal spectrum, the basic consequences for Leung’s character are the same – he’s thrown deeper into calamity. Both deaths are also directly the result of Leung’s characters’ actions, which gives way to all kinds of extra psychological stress. In Hard Boiled Tony is forced to kill his criminal father figure himself to keep his cover, in Infernal Affairs Chan’s cop father figure is killed while trying to keep Chan’s cover. It’s hard to decide which event is more devastating, but once again, I think I give the edge to Woo for the whole forced Oedipal thing.

Infernal Affairs
I find it enjoyably ironic that Scorsese ended up re-imagining this story for The Departed, because stylistically I sense that Lau and Mak are mimicking Goodfellas just as much as they’re mimicking Hard Boiled and The Killer. This is, by the way, one the things I really love about the film, not another comparison based criticism. The camera almost never stops gliding horizontally through and around pensive looking actors, and the fluid quality of the editing is instrumental in disguising any bumps in the narrative flow. Infernal Affairs is a lot of things, but slow-paced and dryly shot aren’t among them. And while I’m on the subject of Scorsese, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not actually exceedingly fond of The Departed either (there were so many better films in 2006, including Children of Men, The Fountain, Pan’s Labyrinth, Casino Royale, and Inside Man, none of which were even nominated for Best Picture), but like Hard Boiled I find that it explores its characters in a much more emotionally satisfying manner, and is generally a better told, more suspenseful story. Perhaps the best example of Scorsese treating the material more effectively is the death of Captain Queenan/Superintendent Wong character. Lau and Mak treat their audience to a sappy song, and mawkish slow motion flashbacks, while Scorsese slaps his audience with the terrifying reality of the situation. Stylistically Hong Kong flicks tend to be more sentimental than modern American crime flicks, but I don’t see this as an unfair, culture shock laden comparison, rather a difference in filmmaker taste. Lau and Mak get points for the speed of their film’s final act (their pacing is generally better than Scorsese’s), but I'm still unable to find the same dramatic gratification in their climax.

Infernal Affairs

Video


Lionsgate’s Miramax catalogue releases have been mixed across the board, and this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer will likely drum up some controversy among videophiles. It has been far too long since I’ve seen the film to do any kind of accurate comparison, but I can compare this to the caps on Chris’ RB Tartan release, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in calling this a very disappointing transfer. The problems here range from digital artefacts and over-sharpening, to weird colour timing and contrast levels. The directors (along with additional cinematographers Lai Yiu-fai and Christopher Doyle) aren’t afraid of capturing every busy inch of the complexity that is Hong Kong with wide lenses and deep-set focus. Anything outside of a big facial close-up is a huge problem for this transfer, mostly in terms of thick, distracting, white edge haloes, but the mushy quality of the elements inside these haloes isn’t much better. Contrast levels look wrong to me, and a check of images from the various releases already available over the net seem to verify this. It’s clear that Infernal Affairs is meant to be a high contrast film, but nothing this extreme was ever intended. The black levels are deep, but there’s heavy crush over the entire film, which is especially apparent in the brighter sequences. This is then coupled with occasionally blown-out whites, creating an exceedingly simplified image bereft of most of the fine gradation. The darker scenes feature similar crush and blowout, but the basic darkness is the bigger issue here, often leading to entirely indiscernible details. My glance over screen caps from other release also verifies that though the filmmakers intended this film to cool and generally desaturated, the overall hues are too blue. Warmer settings (the psychiatrist’s office and Lau’s home, for instance) and skin tones are brownish at best, and all those green mixes are lost in the sea of blue and white. The best thing I can say here is that close-up details are generally sharper than can be expected from a standard definition DVD release, and that the omnipresent fine film grain seems to prove that the disc’s producers resisted the urge to DNR the hell out of the film. Otherwise I say hold on to your DVDs or spring for the Hong Kong or UK releases, which look a lot better based on the screen caps I’m seeing.

These screen caps, by the way, do not represent the Blu-ray’s image quality at all, and I’ve only included them for illustrative purposes (most of them are actually from Chris’ RB Tartan release review). Still, they aren’t entirely worthless for readers with Photoshop capabilities. Simply take one of these, crank up the contrast levels as far as the program will let you on a single take, then use the sharpen filter three or four times, and desaturated the image until you can barely see the difference between the skin tones and the back grounds.

Infernal Affairs

Audio


I did not remember Infernal Affairs being a particularly aurally aggressive film, but this new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track quickly proves my memories false, at least in terms of musical design. The actual on-screen noise is usually centered, and even a bit on the thin side, but Chan Kwong-wing’s eclectic musical score washes over the bulk of the film, and between scenes effects are often abstracted, then spread to create a sort of rush stereo and surround sound (doors slamming, cars moving, stuff like that). The music covers an incredibly broad range of styles, from pop, percussion and heavy rock, to more traditionally classical and tribal music, and this leads the mix to include a broad spectrum of aural extremes. The percussion is punchy, the strings are warm and rich, the electronic and keyboard elements feature subtle separation and expressive stereo spreads, and there are some effectively throbby bass lines to give the LFE a workout. Still, even with all this musical action, the rear channels don’t have a whole lot of work to do. There are a few examples of surround enhancement on the non-musical, non-abstract effects, including the scene where Lau practices his golf swing, unfortunately loud telephones, approaching subway trains, and some of the cars during the big bust scene that kicks off the climax.

Side note on the soundtrack: Can you imagine if Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon had sung a theme song for The Departed? And then that song going on to win best original song at the Oscars?

Infernal Affairs

Extras


The extras on this disc are almost as disappointing as the image quality. These start with ‘The Making of Infernal Affairs’ (15:20, SD), a vintage EPK featurette including behind the scenes footage, and footage from the film itself, coupled with fluffy interviews with major members of the cast and crew. ‘Confidential File: Behind the Scenes look at Infernal Affairs’ (6:00, SD) is more of the same, including much of the same footage, this time in a more raw form without all the interviews and contextual editing. The extras wrap up with the alternate ending (3:00, SD), the international trailer, the original Chinese trailer (both great ways to see how wrong the colour timing is on the film), and trailers for other Lionsgate and Miramax releases.

Infernal Affairs

Overall


So then, ignoring my luke-warm perception of Infernal Affairs’ apparent qualities, the real story here is how severely Lionsgate and Miramax have botched this release. Ignoring the lack of non-ad-based extra features, which is generally forgivable, the image quality is just north of atrocious. Fans should probably avoid this release altogether, and either stick with their DVDs, or save up for a multi-region player, and get their hands on either the UK or HK releases…though neither of those transfers have been highly acclaimed either. They can’t be any worse that this, though. I mean, just look at the cover art: it’s a random frame of an entirely unimportant character from almost the direct center of the film.

Next time on Unpopular Opinions with Gabe Powers…actually, I’m not sure when there will be a next time. I only review what they send me. Perhaps I’ll get a surprise copy of Michael Mann’s Heat for no apparent release, or there will be some kind of anniversary release of The Goonies. We can only hope. Until then, I return you to your regularly scheduled program.

* Note: Again, the images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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