Two Hong Kong films, released on the same day, competed with Matrix Revolutions (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003) for box-office supremacy across Asia this past November. Infernal Affairs II (Alan Mak and Andrew Lau, 2003) is a prequel to a film that suggested a turning point in the Hong Kong film industry as one of the most ambitious attempts at big-budget blockbuster filmmaking in the region (1). Running on Karma (Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, 2003) is the latest film from Johnnie To, a filmmaker who has been instrumental in keeping Hong Kong cinema commercially viable for the past few years and arguably paved the way for an industry capable of making Infernal Affairs (Alan Mak and Andrew Lau, 2002). That both films should be released at the same time the Oracle might find provident, for while they are in many ways very different films, they also share a few aspects – notably the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation and the belief that, to quote a favorite mantra of the triad boss Hau (Francis Ng) in Infernal Affairs II, “what goes around, comes around.”
The original Infernal Affairs told the story of two duplicitous characters: Tony Leung played Yan, an undercover cop who has lived most of his life as a gangster, while Andy Lau played Ming, a triad mole who has lived most of his life as a policeman. These two superstars of the Hong Kong film industry were complemented by other big stars: Eric Tsang as Sam, the triad boss; Anthony Wong as Superintendent Wong; and Sammi Cheng and Kelly Chen in small supporting roles. The surplus of stars helped ensure the success of the film, and Part II continues this investment strategy, further upping the ante. Infernal Affairs II is a prequel with explicit references to The Godfather trilogy – especially The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) – depicting the recruitment of the two main characters at an early age. Shawn Yue and Edison Chan, top teenage pop idols who had a brief appearance during a flashback sequence in the first film, play the younger versions of Leung and Lau respectively. Yue’s previous work includes the independent film Leaving in Sorrow (Vincent Chui, 2001), and Chan received praise for his performance in Gen-Y Cops (Benny Chan, 2000), but here both young stars meet the challenges of their first major starring roles, which include the occasional imitations of familiar gestures of the established Leung and Lau. The always brilliant Tsang and Wong also reprise their characters. And there is an amusing impersonation of Cheng by the actress who plays the younger version of her character, revealing that the best way to evoke an image of Sammi is to act hysterical and a little drunk.
Running on Karma is also a star-driven vehicle, with the aforementioned Lau accompanied by Cecilia Cheung. In an earlier To box office hit, Love on a Diet (Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, 2001), Lau played an obese traveling (expatriate) salesman, and the opening scene of Running on Karma clearly returns to the formula for success of the earlier film: that the biggest tease for fans is to show a deformed body of Andy Lau, with the hope that eventually he will take it all off (that is, his prosthetic body suit). But while he was wearing a fat suit in Love on a Diet, Running on Karma begins with Lau, made up as a huge bodybuilder, performing in a strip club. And while in the previous film, Lau’s bodysuit was integral to the story, in Running on Karma its purpose is not so clear. Most importantly, and perhaps deviously, it disrupts the expectations of the audience: in trailers and posters, the image of the grossly huge Lau (complete with ass-shot) suggests another comedy in the vein of Love on a Diet. But within the rather convoluted story lurks one of To’s darker and more violent films. I won’t give away the most shocking image in the film, which ruptures, shall we say, the image of Cheung, but I can note another disturbing image that recurs throughout the film. In a former life, Cheung’s character was a Japanese soldier during World War II, and Lau’s character, a former Buddhist monk who can see Karma, has recurring visions of this soldier gruesomely slaughtering Chinese prisoners.
So what do these two films have to do with each other? First, as a footnote, it should be noted that both offer depictions (albeit as minor characters) of ethnic groups – Thais and Indians – who are often marginalised within Hong Kong cinema despite their large local populations. Both also utilise a characterisation familiar to many Hong Kong films, particularly John Woo films; that is, a hero whose identity is divided by the demands of good and evil. Running on Karma uses this technique for both dramatic and comic effects. On the one hand, Lau’s muscleman is a devout Buddhist do-gooder; on the other, he’s a meat-eating, womanising strip-tease artist. The pattern of the duplicitous character was firmly in place in the first installment of Infernal Affairs and is affirmed for the two main characters in the second installment, which shows Sam’s transformation from cuddly father-figure to ruthless gangster and Wong’s transformation from ruthless policeman to repentant father-figure. Like the first film, the second is framed by opening titles describing the Buddhist conception of the most infernal level of hell, a timeless space in which one’s identity and conscience no longer has any meaning. The theme of Karma that pervades both films contributes to the subtlety of these dualist characterisations, as the division between good and evil can only be appreciated over a length of time, adding to the epic sensibility to which the Infernal Affairs franchise aspires with references to The Godfather trilogy.
The first Infernal Affairs depicted a world of corruption and vice, yet one sanitised by contemporary Hong Kong’s sleek industrial décor. But while the first film was bathed in a soothing metal-bluish tint, the second film depicts the 1990s as more colourful but also darker. The leading members of the gang in Part Two (aside from the head, Hau, who is dressed like a prep school student) all wear garish shirts, as if predicting that their existence will soon be as obsolete as this fashion. While Infernal Affairs in 2002 portrayed a world of silver mobile phones and laptops, the technology presented in Part II dates the film: an early scene shows Sam lugging around a large cumbersome cellular phone, and the police station is cluttered with mounds of paper files. (Ming’s interest in stereo equipment provided an important prop for the story in the first film, and part two confirms his boyhood interest in hi-fis.) In 1991, the determined good guy of the first film, Inspector Wong, is shown to be equally, if not more, corrupt than the latter-day Ming. So while things were bad in the first Infernal Affairs set in the present day, Hong Kong is shown in the prequel to be even more corrupt during the last gasp of British rule.
But, what goes around, comes around – and a timeline constructed around these two films would include a few notable dates in relation to Hong Kong’s return to Mainland China. Infernal Affairs II portrays the last few years of British rule of Hong Kong, spanning the years 1991 to 1997. Running on Karma picks up where that film leaves off, beginning, in a flashback sequence, in 1998. Much of Running on Karma takes place in China around a Buddhist temple near the Pearl River Delta, (China’s new industrial zone and potential ecological disaster) while the ending fast-forwards to five years from the present. That would be 2008, of course another important year for China, when the rest of the world visits for the Olympics in Beijing.
Thus Infernal Affairs III (Alan Mak and Andrew Lau, 2003), which opened soon thereafter in December, appropriately highlights Hong Kong’s reincarnation as China (or China reincarnated as Hong Kong). In one narrative thread, largely shown in flashbacks, a mysterious Mainland businessman negotiates arms deals with Hong Kong triads while colluding with what he calls the “inefficient” Hong Kong police. This imposing figure is played by Chen Daoming, an actor most famous for his work on Chinese television, and his role in Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002), as the Emperor of China. A huge window in the police executive office building looks out on Victoria Harbor, the angle of its view limited to ships and cranes without showing Hong Kong’s recognisable skyline, instead revealing a scene more evocative of the Pearl River Delta region or Shanghai’s Pudong district, the city’s major construction site. While a police officer suspected of corruption kills himself in this office, behind the transparent screen, another narrative progresses in the distance, as a Mainland Chinese freighter slowly creeps by like the plagued ship in Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1924). With the image of history slowly moving along in the background, gone are those good old days from Part II of a freewheeling, colourful Hong Kong.
The other main narrative strand of Part III is the gradual psychological breakdown of Andy Lau’s character, Ming. The Internal Affairs division finally discovers his corruption and he lives out his days in a mental hospital. This plot line, it could be argued, nullifies the subversive aspect of the first film – its allowing the bad guy to get away with it. But, it should be noted that Ming couldn’t get away with it in Mainland China, as the first film also had an alternate ending required for the Mainland audience. Instead of getting away with it, in a rather ridiculous abrupt turn of events, Ming was arrested in an ending that effectively renders his future shown in the sequel impossible. And so his belated comeuppance happens to coincide with the greater presence of a greater China in the third and final installment.
Ming’s nervous breakdown takes the form of an acute case of schizophrenia, in which he imagines himself to be “the good guy,” i.e. Yan (Tony Leung’s character). Part II introduces the pathological dimension to his character: he suffers from an Oedipus complex, both coveting and eventually killing his surrogate mother figure, the femme fatale wife of the gangster boss (Carina Lau). In Running on Karma, this actor’s other incarnation is similarly both analyst and patient, if the co-presence of one’s former life could be diagnosed as schizophrenia. While he has the power to see the duality in others, in the film’s final section he has to battle and eventually reconcile with the incarnation of his evil side. In the present of Infernal Affairs III, Lau’s character Ming investigates himself without realising it, in scenes that dovetail with the film’s flashback sequences.
The flashback sequences of course serve a pragmatic purpose: to bring back for the sequel three big stars of the first film, even though their characters had died. Besides serving as a visualisation of Ming’s investigation into the past in order to desperately become a good guy, the flashbacks also highlight the relationship between Yan and his court-appointed psychiatrist (Kelly Chen). And so, from Part I-III, an inverse teleology takes precedence, with the prequel-proper in Part II and a substantial back-story in Part III. Besides the cemetery scene, other scenes are repeated in all films of the Infernal Affairs trilogy. All the films discussed above offer a constellation of images of Hong Kong as a British colony, the Handover moment, and Hong Kong as Special Administrative Region of China. Coupled with the temporal axis of schizophrenia in both the Infernal Affairs trilogy and Running on Karma, is this predilection for prequels a case of Hong Kong cinema’s exploration of Walter Benjamin’s idea of historiography as “dialectics at a standstill,” when the concept of history only emerges when evolution reaches a moment of stasis? He writes “the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent” (2). The hyperbolic tale of police corruption – i.e. corruption among those investigating corruption (the Internal Affairs office) – might also invite a constellation between this new image of Hong Kong “high concept” cinema in Infernal Affairs and a flashback to the Hong Kong new wave of the 1980s, some of whose noted auteurs honed their skills by making docudramas for a television series sponsored by Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption. And so this takes us back to Andy Lau, currently Hong Kong’s biggest male star and, in a former life, a recognisable face in Hong Kong’s art cinema.
Lau first achieved fame in a small role as a Vietnamese migrant in Ann Hui’s The Boat People (1982), lauded in art houses across the world. After other acclaimed performances in Wong Kar-wai’s first two films, he went on to become a Canto-pop superstar, a box-office guarantee for commercial films, and Asia’s most prolific product spokesman. The advertising campaigns for the various products Lau currently endorses have piggybacked on the Infernal Affairs hype, completely oblivious to the fact that Lau plays a bad guy and, in the third film, gives one of his most vulnerable performances as a pitiful, weak character (3). Some of Lau’s performances of late have put a few cracks in the perfect mold of his alluring star image as well. Aside from the aforementioned films, the best example would be another To film, Fulltime Killer (2001), in which he plays an boisterous yet impotent cinephiliac assassin. Much anticipation surrounded the latest Golden Horse Awards, in which Lau was expected to beat out his co-star Leung and finally get one of Asia’s most coveted acting awards for Infernal Affairs. When the results were announced, with the absent Leung winning again, Lau immediately became the butt of jokes from the attending glitterati, skipped the afterparties, and left on the first flight out of town. But what goes around, comes around. Currently working on Zhang Yimou’s second try at a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon crossover picture, Lau may soon be again returning to the world’s art-houses.
- For more on the first film, see my article “Infernal Affairs: High Concept in Hong Kong,” Senses of Cinema 26, May-June 2003
- Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Boston, 1999, [N2a,3] p. 462.
- Lau also recently parodied his public service announcements for the Hong Kong tourism board with a cameo appearance in the comedy Golden Chicken (Samson Chiu. 2002). In these television announcements, he urges Hong Kong merchants to improve their standards of polite service. In Golden Chicken, he climbs out of a hotel television set (always a creepy sight, as both The Ring [Hideo Nakata, 1998] and Videodrome [David Cronenberg, 1983] have shown) and becomes a management guru to an aging prostitute who has forgotten the practice of good service.