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Hong Kong box set an ‘Affair’ to remember

Rama Gottumukkala | Monday, April 30, 2007

Improving upon a great film is a daunting task, and often a futile one. But Martin Scorsese proved capable of the challenge when he undertook a remake of “Infernal Affairs,” the highly acclaimed 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller.

Scorsese’s masterful reinvention debuted under a different title – “The Departed” – but it rippled through Hollywood as powerfully and as easily as its predecessor had through Asia. Terrifically entertaining, brilliantly acted and superbly photographed, “Infernal Affairs” started a chain of events that would leave a lasting impact halfway across the world. It caught the eye of an appreciative Scorsese, whose remake garnered the legendary 64-year-old director his long overdue Oscar.

More than any other, Scorsese’s win is a testament to the strength of the original material. Proving the cyclical nature of such success, the praise showered on “Departed” led to the release of the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy in a new three-disc box set from the Weinstein Company.

While the first “Infernal Affairs” film was previously available, this release marks the first time that “Infernal Affairs II,” a prequel, and “Infernal Affairs III” – a sequel that includes intervening flashbacks à la “The Godfather: Part II” – are available on DVD in America. Together, the three films weave a compelling and intricate tapestry of the Hong Kong underworld.

Of the trio, “Infernal Affairs” is by far the best. It has become an instant classic on the strength of its concise storytelling and visual grandeur. The best scenes in the movie come in the briefest interactions between Tony Leung and Andy Lau, who play the characters that inspired Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan and Matt Damon’s Colin Sullivan, respectively. They spend much of the movie dodging one another, but the narrative builds to their climactic rooftop dust-up, a scene that pops with tension-filled verve thanks to Leung and Lau’s engaging chemistry. Compounding this beautifully played scene is the rich cinematography, which captures the great expanse of Hong Kong’s skyline as the backdrop to this very private struggle.

Two different endings were shot for “Infernal Affairs.” Shot to appease Chinese officials concerned with the film’s difficult content, the second is much more upbeat and much less effective. Both are included on the DVD and allow for a good comparison.

While “Infernal Affairs II” and “III” struggle when compared to their elder sibling, both films are able-bodied examples of Hong Kong cinema’s greatest strength: pure, frenzied energy. Like most sequels, money was a clear motivation for their making. As a result, both movies feel less organic. They are chained to habitual albeit impressive set pieces as opposed to subtle character development. Still, it’s satisfying to see Leung and Lau reprise their roles coolly and effortlessly in “Infernal Affairs III.”

The recent DVD set features strong picture and audio quality that amplify the trilogy’s impressive production values. Each of the three DVDs also houses bonus material unique to the individual films. They include trailers, featurettes on the making of each installment, deleted scenes and a subtitled commentary track for “Infernal Affairs II.” Unfortunately, there are no commentaries featuring Leung and Lau, but the special features that are included strengthen the overall package.

Watching “Infernal Affairs” after “The Departed,” it’s easy to see what caught Scorsese’s discerning eye and inspired his imagination. Spread across three movies, the intrigue of this story comes from observing two enthralling leads. These men sink so far into the quicksand of their concealed lives that they begin to question who they were and what they’ve become. The dilemma sparks a fascinating drama.