Infernal Affairs Trilogy: Twenty Years Later

Jerrine Tan

Released in December 2002, five years after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, Andrew Lau’s Infernal Affairs was a collective effort by the major players in Hong Kong film to revitalize the waning local film industry. Bringing together the biggest names in Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs follows Chen Wing Yan (Tony Leung), an undercover cop sent to infiltrate the triads, and Lau Kin-Ming (Andy Lau), an undercover triad member sent to infiltrate the police ranks. Not merely another triad or undercover cop film, Infernal Affairs offers a powerful extended meditation on Hong Kong’s complex identity and the geopolitical shifts of power set in motion by the 1997 handover.

Now marking its twentieth anniversary, Infernal Affairs’ exploration of the irresolvable conundrum of Hong Kong’s existential and political status feels even more prescient in the wake of political events such as the 2014 Umbrella Movement and 2019 protests.  Through its two main characters—uneasy twins whose paths diverge following their first meeting as police cadets—the film uses the central theme of duplicity to represent what scholar Howard Y.F. Choy identifies as  the “schizophrenic” struggles of Hong Kong residents, torn between British and Chinese identities. (Law Wing-Sang also explores this tension through what he terms “collaborative colonialism” and has written about how the film exposes the “political unconscious” of Hong Kong.) It’s impossible to pin down which confused and duplicitous character is meant as a metaphor for Hong Kong. Is it the canny lone wolf Lau Kin-Ming, a spy for the triads who finds himself thriving in the police force and reluctant to return to his criminal roots? In betraying his Triad boss, does Lau Kin-Ming symbolize the Hong Kong that turned its back on its origins in favor of the wealth and global influence it enjoyed under colonial rule?  Or does righteous Chen Wing Yan, illegitimate son of a triad boss who tries to “go straight” by joining the police, embody the Hong Kong that thought it might bring democracy to mainland China?

The film’s theme of duality manifests at the level of plot. Infernal Affairs is what Hilary Hongjin He calls, alluding to Deng Xiaoping’s “One Country, Two Systems” policy, “one movie two versions.” Infernal Affairs was the first of a string of films with two endings, which He argues was a result of policies such as the Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA), signed in 2003 to encourage collaboration between the Hong Kong and Chinese film industries. Naked Ambition (Hing-Ka Chan, 2003) and even David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) are a couple of examples of films which have alternative endings in China. The trend of alternative endings produced for the mainland market also acts as a metaphor for the wider revisionism created by state-censorship. In the original version, Lau’s successful conniving coupled with sheer luck and a cold-hearted willingness to betray others allows him to get away scot-free, while Chen’s dogged commitment to the rule of law results only in his unjust death.  In the alternate, mainland ending, Lau is arrested after killing an undercover triad member, who earlier saved his life by shooting Chen. This version was prompted by Malaysian film regulations but also complied with the Chinese Film Regulations of 2002, which prohibited “that which propagates obscenity, gambling, violence or instigates crimes” from being shown.

Hong Kong filmmakers eventually capitulated to the demands of the mainland Chinese market, producing films with only one ending, so the period of “one movie two versions” marked out a liminal time when Hong Kong’s film industry still possessed some agency. The film’s success spawned two subsequent films–Infernal Affairs II and Infernal Affairs III—that premiered within a year of the first film’s release. Neither film would exist (at least in its current form) had Infernal Affairs’s mainland ending been its only ending, as their narratives are predicated on Lau’s escape.

By the end of the trilogy, even though Lau Kin-Ming survives, he is institutionalized in a medical facility, apparently paralyzed and schizophrenic. Haunted by his past and by Chen, Lau has become increasingly paranoid, hallucinating and believing at turns that he is Chen Wing Yan. Today, an investigation into Hong Kong’s history of protest might reveal a similar “schizophrenia,” a seeming flip-flopping of allegiances and positions across that crucial boundary line of 1997. In 1899, locals revolted against the British colonizers in what is known as the Six-Day War. In 1967, pro-Communist riots were curbed through the intervention of the British garrison. During the Umbrella Movement of 2014, people protested the decisions by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China’s (NPCSC) and the National People’s Congress’s (NPC) regarding Hong Kong election proceedings and the right to universal suffrage. In 2019, almost two million people took to the streets to protest the Hong Kong government’s introduction of an extradition bill allowing for the transfers of fugitives from Taiwan, mainland China, and Macau.

But to view these changes in allegiance as inconsistent is to misunderstand something fundamental about the Hong Kong identity. What these protests have in common is that they were anti-government in nature; what had changed was the government itself. In fact, this vibrant history of protest is emblematic of a consistent and unique Hong Kong spirit. As Louisa Lim writes in Indelible City, comparing the Six Day War of 1899 and the pro-democracy protests of 2019: “Both were leaderless, grassroots movements aimed at defending Hong Kongers from an all-powerful colonizing force.” In their essay, “The Myth of Political Apathy in Hong Kong,” Michael E. Degolyer and Janet Lee Scott, who observed and photographed the events of June 4, 1989 in Hong Kong, debunk the myth that Hong Kongers were historically only concerned with money, and demonstrate that they have a long history of grassroots activism and have responded enthusiastically to opportunities for greater democracy. In 1989, “a million Hong Kong residents marched in the streets” in support of students in Tiananmen square who were demanding political and social reform, thus firmly articulating their ideological sympathies with mainland protestors against a Chinese identity that is tethered to national identity or political party. Today, as a politically vibrant and engaged city is quelled under the effect of the National Security Law passed by Beijing, the narrative arc of the trilogy seems to congeal more and more into Hong Kong’s reality.

For reasons both practical and ideological, it is unlikely that Infernal Affairs could be made in Hong Kong today. The cast of all-stars is now divided into those who have been blacklisted in Hong Kong for their political views and those who have not. The actors Anthony Wong (SP Wong) and Chapman To (Keung) who were outspoken during the 2019 protests, now struggle to find mainstream work in Hong Kong. And a new crop of documentary films showcasing the brutality of the police during the 2019 protests stand in direct contrast to the “positive image” of police propagated in the “copaganda films” of the Golden Age of Hong King Cinema, as Tiffany Sia has argued.  As Sia notes, these films “have historically promoted an image of Hong Kong police as “Asia’s finest,” a force that touts itself as one of the oldest, founded in British colonial Hong Kong.” Indeed, the undercover cop genre has a long history in Hong Kong film—films such as John Woo’s Hardboiled (1992), Tsui Hark’s A Better Tomorrow III (1989), Ringo Lam’s City On Fire (1987), Derek Yee’s Protégé (2007), among others.  But part of Infernal Affairs’s appeal to Hong Kong audiences was that it subverted this representation of the police as always right or good. After all, the film’s English title is also a pun on “internal affairs,” casting a wry sidelong glance at police agencies. Ironically, Lau the double-agent is promoted and transferred to the Internal Affairs unit, known as OCTB, Organized Crime and Triad Bureau, in a satirical, almost sarcastic narrative detail.  In these ways, Infernal Affairs demonstrated its critical eye toward the police even then, daring to address the failures of state-funded surveillance and law enforcement.

The film goes even further, suggesting that the institution of the police fails even the best and most righteous in the force, who are themselves fallible. Throughout the film, the tragic hero, Chen Wing Yan repeats, “I’m a cop”—a refrain that pulses more like an insistent wish than a lived reality—even as he is constantly deceived and disappointed by his superiors and even as he exhibits increasingly violent behavior which necessitates psychiatric help. SP Wong has a chat with Chen about his violent outbursts, suggesting that he is “perverse” at one point and Chen begins seeing a psychiatrist, played by Kelly Chen. A similar dissonance was reflected in the Hong Kong Police Force in 2019 in the wake of widespread public protests. Reports by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI) in that period showed marked public dissatisfaction with the police, and yet another report found that 82% of Hong Kong police officers nonetheless held an unwavering belief that “Being a police officer is important to who I am.” Chen’s tragic death in reward for his unwavering belief in a flawed criminal justice system conveys something important about how the film views the efficacy of these institutions.

By the end of the trilogy, of the main cast of characters, only the mainland Chinese undercover agent, Shen (Chen Daoming) survives intact. In 2023, this ending feels painfully on the nose as a metaphor for Hong Kong’s current situation and relationship with China. The medicalization of both Lau’s and Chen’s unstable identity which necessitates psychological treatment as a corrective misunderstands the unresolvable conundrum of Hong Kong. Hong Kong identity is layered and complex, irreducible to a singularity. Today, this wrong-headed filmic psychological corrective finds a real-life counterpart in revised national education textbooks in which, history is smoothed over in order to promote greater social integration and cultural identification between Hong Kongers and mainland China. In a 2006 essay, Law Wing-Sang pointed out a certain glee shared by Hong Kongers at Chen’s “refusal to submit to hypnosis,” which bespeaks an attitude towards revisionism that can be observed today.   

The film’s Cantonese title, 無間道, which translates to “unending road,” refers to the Buddhist concept of the “continuous hell.” At first blush, this may seem to allude to the undercover mode—to be in between is torturous, at once two characters and neither, unmoored from either reality. It likely also points to Hong Kong’s multiple long states of limbo, over more than one hundred years of rule by the British, which ended only to give way to the liminal period of 50 years under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy. But each of these liminal states were and are finite. In 2002/3 when the trilogy was released, over 40 years of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy yawned ahead. This year Hong Kong commemorated 26 years since the handover, slipping into the second half of its 50 years of supposed autonomy, though the freedoms it once enjoyed have already quickly been eroded. Twenty years since the films were released and amid a vastly different political landscape, the “never-ending path” which the title refers to might not point to Hong Kong’s years of political limbo, but to its inevitable fate that lies beyond the 50 years and that for the first time, truly stretches out indefinitely. At the end of the third film, the camera zooms in on Lau’s fingers tapping out in Morse code “H-E-L-L-” before cutting out—it remains to be seen if he means to type out a greeting to signify a beginning, or if it is an impotent pronouncement of his abhorrently interminable end.

Jerrine Tan is an assistant professor of English at City University Hong Kong. She has articles published and forthcoming in Modern Fiction Studies, Wasafiri, and The Cambridge Companion to Kazuo Ishiguro, among others. She has also written for the New York Times, LARB, WIRED, Brooklyn Rail, Literary Hub, and other outlets. 

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