Infernal Affairs II Turns its Limitations into its Advantages

Infernal Affairs is a success of commercial calculations. Infernal Affairs II surpasses it in terms of narrative techniques, character portrayal, thematic development, and even ambition and vision, and remains an organic whole.

Though both are genre films, the creator shows a greater easiness in the handling of genre films in Infernal Affairs II. The script discrepancies that have blemished Infernal Affairs are gone, and scenic execution is precise and suspenseful: montage with parallel editing (Lau Kin-ming in his board interview, Wong Chi-shing under internal investigation, and the assassination of the four families and Hon Sam in Thailand) juxtaposes and contrasts time and space clearly and neatly. The same applies to the inter-cutting of lyrical and narrative shots (Uncle Third whistling and Hon Sam waiting to be tainted witness in the hotel). The mise-en-scene of key scenes is precise and stylish (the two confrontations between Ngai and the police in food stall are interspersed with the close-ups of static characters, giving psychological insight into the characters). The static moments tighten up the tension and heighten the atmosphere.

As for cinematography, light source (natural and neon light) is skillfully handled and manipulated, together with the employment of deep focus, tracking shots and hand-held camera, it is an improved version of the Young and Dangerous language, giving a long-missed concreteness to the exaggeration common in gangster genre. The tension and the engrossing factor surpass the first three Young and Dangerous films, and the self-confidence and judgment exhibiting here is well balanced (it opens with a two-minute monologue by Wong Chi-shing). This is a fine example of cinematography with mise-en-scene in mind.

As for the ambience, the multi-lateral development is never confusing and it adds telltale details to the characters. What is rare, actors of opposite style (Francis Ng, Anthony Wong) are allowed to strut their stuff here and yet they complement one and other. It is nice to see Eric Tsang and Carina Lau star in a serious drama again and they are every bit in their element. Liu Kai-chi and Roy Cheung are perfect in their supporting roles. The director shows his worth by drawing the best from such a diversified cast. It is a win-win situation for the director and actors.

More importantly, as the prequel of Infernal Affairs, it has turned its limitation (characters and their fate) into its advantage (a study of character development). Technically, it is exquisite, lifting itself into an epic and turning the double undercover gimmick in its predecessor into an identity crisis(the cop’s gangster blood link) and a change of times (Hon Sam replacing Ngai, and Royal Hong Kong Police transits into SAR Police).

The film spans from 1991 to 1997, unabashedly a time of transition. Yet the story unfolds into a quest of original sin. The key character Wong Chi-shing is supposedly on righteousness' side, a cliché in gangster films, but his illicit affair with Mary is what starts all the killings, the purgatory after Adam and Eve has lost their paradise.
Wong Chi-shing allows Hon Sam to grow in power, and their marriage of convenience turns sour. This change of relationship from friends to enemies gives another level of reading in this post 9-11 times. What they proclaim, though, is an age of misplaced value, subversion of right and wrong, and identity crisis.

"The world is not supposed to be like this, a man is not supposed to be like this." This insistence proves to be the cause of his demise, and explains the happenings in the first film. Said in the pre 97 timeframe, it is also a comment on the post 97 Hong Kong. Local films have been evasive on this issue; even the broken hearted are optimistic for a better tomorrow. It is left for gangster films to give vent to the pessimistic views that what follows can only be worse.

By Thomas Shin

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