By focusing on characters and stakes, part two of the trilogy complements and even improves the first
“In this job, you’ll always pay the price.”
After Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs dominated the box office and the Hong Kong Film Awards, a sequel was obviously in the works. But with several of its main characters … indisposed, the logical step was to make IA2 a prequel. But despite all the pressure to make a film that would be as well-received and successful as the first, not including the limitations that come from knowing how it’s all supposed to end, both directors – and screenwriter Felix Chong – came up with something that actually works really well.
Set over the course of seven years, between 1991 and 1997, Infernal Affairs II deals with the time between the two primary characters joining as cadets and the start of the first movie. It starts with the murder of Kwun, the boss of the Ngai crime family and deals with the rise to power and ultimate downfall of his son, Hau (Francis Ng). Edison Chen and Shawn Yue play the younger versions of Andy Lau and Tony Leung’s characters Lau and Yan, respectively, who are both struggling with their chosen paths. Yan is a top-ranking cadet, but when he is expelled due to his half-brother being Hau, police inspector Wong (Anthony Wong) decides to give him a chance as an undercover cop.
Meanwhile, Hon Sam (Eric Tsang) is a small-time crime boss working for Hau whose wife Mary (Carina Lau) orchestrated the killing of Kwun in order to help her husband move up in the ranks. Lau, who performed the hit, decides to protect Mary in case the Ngais ever discover this (they do), but begins to fall for her. Soon, it becomes apparent that Wong and Mary were working together to end the Ngais, and it isn’t long before everyone’s futures is on the line. With Wong struggling to keep his friendship with superintendent Luk (Hu Jun) as well as his job, Yan becoming ever lost in the world of crime, Sam’s slow but inevitable rise to the top, Lau’s climb up the ranks and Hau’s attempts to keep his family and business running, everything is at stake.
Infernal Affairs II could have been made really lazily, and it’s a relief to see that it wasn’t. Writers Mak and Chong realised that they had a solid opportunity to fill in some blanks, and flesh out some of the other characters, and they took it. Taking centre stage here are Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang, who get to show off some other sides of their roles. Wong especially has a lot to do as he goes through bad decision after bad decision, suffering tragedy and consequence as he does so. Sam is shown as having a softer side here, and his transformation into the ruthless gang leader we know him as is wrought with pain as well.
Hau is given a lot of time here too, and Ng’s performance is cool and detached for most of it, breaking only when the chips are down. He plays a colder villain than Tsang did in the first film, whose family means the world to him, and who does everything to keep their business running, even if it means killing everyone in his way. While Sam might feel a tinge of friendship between himself and Wong, Hau has nothing but contempt. This portrayal is a great contrast in showing how the crime worlds in both movies operate.
Suffice it to say that because of this new focus, Yan and Lau are pushed to the back – a smart choice. To focus too much on them would undo some of the work in the first film. A prequel’s biggest problem is creating arcs for characters that begin the original film flawed. By keeping the two original leads out of the limelight, they become passive, and it’s only their interactions with the bigger picture that leads them to become the people we know. Shawn Yue does a great job here, with a performance that starts rough and angry but slowly develops into the softer, conflicted character Tony Leung brought us. Yue begins to pick up some of the elder actor’s tics and mannerisms as the movie progresses, going so far as to grow the same moustache. Edison Chen looks a hell of a lot like a young Andy Lau, but his performance is easily the least engaging here, and he spends most of the movie frowning and not doing much. But Lau gets most of the screentime in part 1 (and part 3), so it’s fair enough.
The cinematography hasn’t changed from the first film. Andrew Lau gives us the same gritty, dirty Hong Kong that so much of the previous film was set in. The police scenes certainly seem less bright than they were, but that’s because the practices there are not quite as on the up and up as they will become later. Here, the morals of both the good guys and the bad guys are murky, and we never know who is really doing the right thing, and the film represents this visually. Supported by a really great score from Chan Kwong-wing, Infernal Affairs II knows how to show its story, as well as tell it.
So, yeah, it’s good. It isn’t perfect, but for what it is, Infernal Affairs II knows what the audience wanted. While it does rely on your affection for the characters established in the original at first, it never coasts. Instead, it provides a pretty solid companion piece to the first movie, resulting in a much more satisfying larger picture. It doesn’t hold up as its own film all that well – you really do need to watch Infernal Affairs to really feel the stakes, but it’s the middle part of a trilogy; who’s watching this one without context anyway? It hits all the right emotional beats, gives us more of the characters we love, wrapped around a story that, like the handover of Hong Kong at the end, prepares them for the inevitable major changes to the status quo.
Verdict: It does everything a good prequel should, while showcasing some solid crime drama
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Sex: Carina Lau getting changed?/10
Drama: All of it. All the drama
Ways to kill a crime boss: Burying alive, suffocation, immolation, shot close to fishtanks
Realisation that those correspond to the four elements: Just now
Time people have screwed over Ghandi: 2. Probably more
Moral of the story: The Thai are brutal
Infernal Affairs II (2003)
Also known as: mou gaan dou 2
Director: Andrew Lau, Alan Mak
Writers: Alan Mak, Felix Chong
Anthony Wong – Wong
Eric Tsang – Hon Sam
Carina Lau – Mary
Francis Ng – Ngai Wing-hau
Shawn Yue – Chan Wing-yan
Edison Chen – Lau Kin-ming
Hu Jun – Superintendent Luk
Chapman To – Crazy Keung
Henry Fong – Ghandi
Peter Ngor – Negro
Arthur Wong – Wah
Teddy Chan – Man-ching
Roy Cheung – Law
Chiu Chung-yu – younger Mary (from IA1)
Chaucharew Wichai – Sunny
Joe Cheung – Ngai Kwun