(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The MovieInfernal Affairs

Where You Can Stream It: Paramount+

The Pitch: An undercover police officer (Tony Leung) infiltrates a criminal group. A mole in the police department (Andy Lau) is secretly working for the same gang. In a tense game of cat-and-mouse, the two of them attempt to expose the other at the behest of their separate bosses (Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang) in a Hong Kong crime thriller that would be remade by Martin Scorsese into the Oscar-winning gangster flick The Departed.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: See above re: The Departed.

…I like Infernal Affairs better than The Departed. Phew, there, we’ve gotten that out of the way. Not to knock the master Martin Scorsese — whose 2006 gangland drama smoothly switched out the Hong Kong triads for the Boston Irish mob and featured a murderer’s row of acting greats including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, and Martin Sheen — but Andrew Lau’s 2002 original edges it out just a smidge for several reasons, the main one being the central performances.

Infernal Affairs immediately kicks off a compelling relationship between the two central characters — Leung’s undercover cop Chan Wing-yan (DiCaprio’s counterpart) and Lau’s police force mole Lau Kin-ming (Damon’s counterpart) — who meet at the beginning of the film in a bit of cosmic coincidence before parting, their lives running in twisted parallels to each other as they attempt to uncover the other. Leung and Lau both give tremendous performances, Leung in particular is visibly shattered as Chan Wing-yan, barely holding it together after 10 years of infiltrating the criminal underworld. But Lau’s performance as the turmoiled mole Lau Kin-ming is what pushes Infernal Affairs ahead of The Departed — the happily married rising police star whose double life begins to chip away at his own spiritual guilt making for a far more compelling and memorable character than Damon’s weaselly, honestly kind of forgettable, turn. Poor Damon, still fairly new to stardom at the time and still trying to figure out what kind of leading man he would be, felt simply miscast in the role in which he was overshadowed by the much more showy ensemble of character actors.

Infernal Affairs is showy in its own way; where Scorsese ups the shocking displays of violence and hardened masculinity in The Departed, Lau goes big on emotion in a way that feels almost operatic. Chan Wing-yan’s sole tie to the police world is Superintendent Wong Chi-shing, the only one who knew Chan’s identity and a father figure of sorts. Chan grasps for these kinds of personal connections, even striking up an awkward relationship with his therapist (Kelly Chen) that feels more out of desperation than personal affection. It makes the explosive twists of Infernal Affairs land even harder, even if you’re deeply familiar with the beats of Scorsese’s gangster flick. While the sentimentality of Infernal Affairs may feel overwrought for the Western viewer, it gives Infernal Affairs a deeper emotional resonance that lends depth to its dizzying crime story.

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