Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review – Infernal Affairs II

March 5, 2011

Infernal Affairs II - Hong Kong, 2003

Perhaps one of the hardest kinds of films to make well is the prequel, for there must be some unresolved part of the story for a prequel to be necessary, some mystery that viewers had at the end of the first film that they will now have the answer to. For example, many viewers wanted to know just how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, and they flocked to the three Star Wars prequels to have that question answered. Compare their response to the empty theatres that accompanied the second prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Rising. The only example I can think of of a prequel that doesn’t fit into either category is The Godfather Part II, yet it should be said that the story of Vito Corleone’s rise to power was a part of that film, not the entire narrative. Using this idea of a mystery that needs answering as a barometer, it’s difficult to say that a prequel was needed for the first Infernal Affairs film. There was no mystery to tie up, no hidden story that would help viewers better understand the events that transpired in first film. In fact, the opposite was true. I suspect that many people wondered what would happen next, not what had happened before. Therefore, Infernal Affairs II, in its present state, seems wholly unnecessary.

The film takes viewers back to 1991, six years before Hong Kong reverted back to Mainland Chinese control. The Hong Kong underworld appears to be controlled by the Ngai family, and Sam (Eric Tsang), the Triad boss in the first film, is somewhere down the ladder, and it doesn’t even appear that the four families that pay money to the Ngai’s value his opinion in the slightest. How he could then have already sent a group of young men to infiltrate the police force is a bit of a mystery. The force trying to put the Ngai family in jail is once again led by SP Wong (Anthony Wong) and SP Luk (Jun Hu), who had already died before the events in the first film. Interestingly, in Infernal Affairs II Wong and Sam seem to be rather close acquaintances, which actually gels with how their interacted in the first film. And of course, there’s Yan (Shawn Yue) and Lau (Edison Chen). We learn that Yan was expelled from the police force due to his connection to organized crime. He’s the half-brother of Hau Ngai (Francis Ng), the new head of the Ngai family. As for Lau, we learn that he was in very much in love with Sam’s wife Mary (Carina Lau), a rather ambitious woman who thinks Sam should be much more powerful that he is when the film begins.

The film begins with the assassination of the Ngai family patriarch, an act that could unleash a flurry of violence on the streets of Hong Kong. That is doesn’t happen is the result of some clever blackmail on the part of Hau Ngai, yet the uneasy calm that follows does nothing to settle Hau’s bitter feelings, an observation that is clear to Sam, but not to the other four uncles. Yan is sent in to spy on the Ngai’s. Lau, with the exception of his actions at the beginning and the end of the film, doesn’t do much else.

A good rule of thumb for prequels is this: if a particular character was not in the first film then there’s a good chance he won’t be alive by the time the credits roll. In accordance with this rule, if a character was in the previous film, then any drama revolving around him being in danger can only be resolved one way. Based on the first rule, the future does not bode well for the Ngai family, Mary, the four uncles, or many of the henchmen that the camera focuses intently on. The second rule unfortunately sabotages what are intended to be rather suspenseful moments. For example, when Sam is shot point-blank in the chest, there’s absolutely no surprise that he survives – only incredulity. In fact, Infernal Affairs II could easily have been titled The Rehabilitation of Sam, for I’ve never seen a film go to such lengths to portray a villain is such a positive light. Even worse, by the end of the film, you may wonder just how Sam could ever say that he trusts Yan above all others, let alone hire him.

What makes Infernal Affairs II somewhat interesting is its exploration of the feelings of its characters regarding the events of 1997. Some are trying hard to retire before the handover; others are worried that they won’t be needed anymore, which for some soldiers indeed turned out to be true, a subject expanded on in Fruit Chan’s 1998 film, The Longest Summer. In Infernal Affairs II, the Ngai family views the event as giving them a chance to step out from the shadows of disrespectability. I wonder how many other criminal families had the same idea. However, by the end of the film, it’s clear that the only thing that has really changed is the picture of public enemy #1 that hangs on the wall of SP Wong’s office. We see Hau’s picture come down and Sam’s go up in its place. Now, who didn’t predict that? (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 and a half stars

*Infernal Affairs II is in Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles.

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