An Earful of Symmetry
Well, hello again everyone, and before we go off into the next round of Blockbuster Roulette, let's just take a peek at a foreign language movie that got rather good reviews on its recent release over here (it's still doing the art house circuit, and if it isn't already out to rent, it should be very soon) - Alan Mak and Andrew Lau's Wu Jian Dao, which I think we shall refer to by its English title, Infernal Affairs (even though the Hong Kong title I Want To Be You is a bit punchier, not to mention more apt).
A marginally post-John Woo-ish cops and robbers thriller, this is the story of two young men who meet at Hong Kong's police academy, Yan (Tony Leung) and Lau (Andy Lau). Yan is expelled and falls into bad company, while Lau rises quickly through the ranks. Ten years later the duo meet again, this time as sworn enemies...
The twist, of course, is that Yan hasn't really gone bad, but is a long-term undercover agent infiltrating the local mob, his only contact Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong). And Lau isn't a supercop, but a mole in the pay of local crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang). Both Wong and Sam know they have a traitor in their respective camps, and it's only a question of time before one rumbles the other's identity...
Well, I say this is a John Woo-influenced movie, but anyone turning up expecting to see characters hoiking themselves through the air with a gun in each hand is probably in for a disappointment. The emphasis here is on plot and suspense, with a little bit of character thrown in for good measure. It's nearly an hour into the film before bullets start flying and even then this isn't the fetishised and hyper-choreographed gunplay of a Woo movie, but something more realistic.
Infernal Affairs works perfectly well as a thriller: it's polished, very pacy, and while the plot is occasionally a bit convoluted you're never really in much doubt as to what's going on and why. There are moments of well-handled tension, and Leung and Lau (that's actor-Lau, not character-Lau or director-Lau - this film has an embarrassment of riches in the Lau department for some reason) are both very good in the leading roles. The twists near the conclusion of the story are slightly variable - one in particular seems a bit contrived and unlikely - but on the whole the story hangs together well. News of an American remake should surprise no-one, especially as this is a movie with a clear stylistic debt to US cinema (Heat seems to have been a particular influence).
But I have to say that to me this just seems to be a competent and well-assembled movie, no more and no less. There's the potential here for something really powerful and thoughtful, but the script and direction never quite gel to tap into that. The film-makers certainly seem aware of the possibilities of the film's scenario, but only address them on the most basic and obvious levels: Lau's girlfriend is writing a story about a man with split personalities, who can't remember whether he's good or evil. The parallel with Lau himself is a bit too obvious to be totally effective.
And, for the two sides to be reflections of themselves the film should really operate in a moral vacuum, with neither police nor criminals commanding too much of the audience's sympathy. But this isn't the case, as the lawmen are uniformly depicted as nice, decent people. Wong is much more likeable than Sam. The only exception to this is Lau (character-Lau, not... oh, you get the idea), who is, at the very least, nice to his girlfriend. However this kind of sympathetic villainy (and, when we get down to it, Lau is basically a villain) would be much more effective if Yan had been similarly corrupted and become a sort of anti-hero. But he's still ruggedly heroic and moral despite all he's been through. It would also be a lot more effective if the two main characters had more screen time together, rather than all their shared scenes occurring within about ten minutes right at the end of the movie. Admittedly this would have called for a bit more ingenuity on the part of the screenwriter, but it would be worth it, quite possibly elevating a good film to the level of greatness.
But as things stand, Infernal Affairs is just a good, polished thriller, with no actual flaws to speak of. It's certainly no worse than most American studio pictures, and better than many. But it's not quite the masterpiece that some have hailed it to be.
Something Something Oranges Something
As a pretend film critic I feel I should say something about the late Marlon Brando, who passed away last week. Quite what, I'm not sure, as he was an actor the bulk1 of whose work was made and released in an era long before I was born, let alone interested in cinema.
For the record, my first Brando movie was Superman, wherein the great man got top billing and a skipful of money for a ten-minute cameo as Jor-El. For all that this performance has informed the treatment of this character ever since (distant, dignified, and English), for me it's just as important as a representative sample of Brando's later career: parts veering between pomposity, hamminess, and absurdity.
But he had a kind of aura about him, no doubt due to those 50s roles with which I am so woefully unfamiliar. Like a great mountain, the Brando legend was perhaps more imposing from a distance. If nothing else the inevitable tribute season will allow the opportunity to try and judge his work on its own merits. RIP.