BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: good cop, bad cop.

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 revelled 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 story. 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.