This fortnight at the Wellington Film Society: good cop, bad cop; Ken Loach.
Infernal Affairs will forever suffer comparisons to its Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning remake The Departed. Scorsese’s film was bloated, weighed down by its star power, and reveled in the moral ambiguity of the premise. Infernal Affairs in contrast is buffed down to a sheen, the moral ambiguity of the narrative a thin (but important) film around its seeming glossy fashion shoot. But that doesn’t make Infernal Affairs a bad film. Anything but—it’s one of the most enjoyable action films of the last decade. The narrative is so tightly coiled, the tension arises simply from waiting for the script’s muscles to flex.
Of course, the film is helped by a highly contrived script. An undercover policeman in the Hong Kong Triads (Tony Leung) and an undercover Triad in the police (Andy Lau) play a cat-and-mouse game trying to discover each other’s identity. That’s essentially it when it comes to the premise, and the story is so stripped back it leaves little room for anything else, the film wasting little time on anything but the characters’ bloody quest.
In the process, Infernal Affairs subverts many of the Hong Kong action tropes, a national cinema which has arguably had the biggest historical influence on action cinema, and without which, Hollywood action films would look totally different. The glorious melodramatic histrionics of some of the best Hong Kong actions films (John Woo, Tsui Hark) are simply reduced down to Leung and Lau’s impassive faces, and the film eschews the balletic action sequences of 80s and 90s Hong Kong action cinema in favour of character development. And while this may not impress the die-hard HK action fans, it showed why the film proved to be a global box office success (of course, relatively speaking when compared to The Departed—the Academy Award announcers thought the original was Japanese after all).
Aided by cinematographic maestro Christopher Doyle, the visuals present a highly technological and skyscrapered cityscape, and there are constant images of glass which add to the mirror maze feel of the film. The actors tear up the screen almost by simply coasting—Leung (surely one of the contemporary cinema’s finest actors) walks around with the unnerving cool of Alain Delon throughout, and Andy Lau, all cheekbones and quiet malevolence. The film also simmers with an existential and paranoid angst, a post-handover Hong Kong not sure of its identity an obvious subtext to the characters’ inner turmoil. But Infernal Affairs’ biggest success is that it works wonderfully well as an action film, the white-knuckle tension showing what its two hackneyed sequels and the more lauded American remake failed to do: genuinely thrill.
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Despite his films being of quite eclectic subject matter, Ken Loach is primarily known for his kitchen-sink, social realism. He made his name with the controversial 60s TV movie Cathy Come Home, and since then has shown an empathy and understanding of everyday people’s struggles. His politics aren’t hard to decipher, and while the politics in The Navigators are obvious, the film’s success comes his almost exclusive focus on his protagonists and their increasing desperation with the way times have changed.
The film looks at a railway crew in Sheffield in the midst of privatisation on the British railways. Written by a former railwayman, Rob Dawber (who became unemployed post-privatisation and who died of lung cancer—caused by handling asbestos as a railwayman—before the film was released), the script pays great attention to establishing the men on the crew individually, and outlining their everyday battles with work, money, and their families. And while a person could be a railwayman for life in the old days, the new privatised days leads to job insecurity, short-cuts, and a compromising of safety. The script largely ignores the big bad corporates (a successful move, especially as the few scenes with the actual corporates feel a little flat) and instead focuses on the way the men interact among each other. The camaraderie and piss-taking feels entirely natural, and the story successfully conveys the banality of their work, and their subsequent situations. In effect, Loach manages to gain complete empathy with the characters without patronising or victimising them.
The Navigators shows the lengths that ordinary people get corrupted by such the system. It’s kind of like Wall Street, set among normal looking people. The utterly cruel but pitch perfect ending, in which the men’s desperation for work causes them to compromise their unity, is built up beautifully by the minute attention to the men’s struggles. Loach wisely gives his actors space, and their understated performances help carry the film. The aesthetic concerns are limited: simply, the visuals function to serve the story. Loach is more of a storyteller than an aesthete, not surprising given that the film was reportedly not even made for a cinematic release. Instead, it aims for the same kind of empathy and small scale drama in which he made his name back in the 60s. And Loach for the most part succeeds with, as he manages to wrench the little tragedies of little people and make them universal.