As the film celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, James Balmont reflects on the film’s subversive legacy and why – amid new disruption in Hong Kong – he “never felt more relevant”
Shadows, fire and large stone statues dominate the opening Hellish business like a hellish James Bond title sequence. But despite the bombastic innuendo, the film that follows is neither hokey fantasy nor a bullet-ballooned adrenaline rush like the one Hong Kong was once known for. A complex metropolitan crime thriller of the sharpest order, Hellish business would in many ways defy expectations upon its release in 2002 – and at the height of one of the film industry’s darkest eras, it was the film that briefly re-established Hong Kong cinema on the global map.
Lau (Andy Lau) is an ambitious and high-ranking police inspector secretly planted in the station by a powerful crime lord, Sam (Eric Tsang). Meanwhile, Chan (Tony Leung) is one of the mobster’s best henchmen, an undercover cop whose true identity is unknown to anyone except Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong). As both sides of the law prepare to go on strike during a major criminal investigation, the two moles become aware of each other’s existence. They only have so much time to identify each other before they themselves are exposed.
With ambiguous themes and mirrored images that aptly reflected Hong Kong’s identity crisis at the turn of the century, the film would become a huge hit at the box office and at awards shows at home and abroad, spawning two sequels, an Oscar-winning Hollywood remake . , and dozens of cinematic doubles. And as it celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and will be joining the Criterion collection for a UK re-release on November 28, Hellish business still endures as one of Hong Kong’s greatest crime sagas. But why?
From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Hong Kong experienced a cinematic golden age. Authors love Wong Kar-wai (In the mood for love) and Stanley Kwan (Rouge) began their ascents in the arthouse world, while mainstream filmmakers such as John Woo (A better tomorrow), Ringo Lamb (City on fire) and Tsui Hark (Long ago in China) released action-packed blockbusters that turned Chow Yun-fat and Jet Li into superstars. An explosion of pornographic and horribly violent exploitation films took place with the introduction of Hong Kong’s infamous ‘Category III’ film rating system. And with about 300 full-length feature films completed by 1993, the “Hollywood of the East” exported works to major box offices across the continent.
It wouldn’t last. Criminal disruption had already led to the murder of Jet Li’s manager in 1992 after he refused to lend his star to a Triad-produced film, while Carina Lau (Flowers of Shanghai) was kidnapped from the set of Days of being wild. The looming Hong Kong Handover of 1997, in which autonomy was to be transferred from Britain to mainland China, only made matters worse – with Hong Kong filmmaking figureheads such as Woo, Lam and Hark leaving for Hollywood, fearing oppression. creative freedoms and reduced work opportunities at home. Rampant piracy and the Asian financial crisis of 1997 led to movie theater closures and slashed budgets. And in 1998, only 85 features had been completed as the industry plunged headfirst into recession.
But in 2002, two veteran filmmakers Andrew Lau (a cinematographer op City on fire and that of Wong Karwai Chungking Express) and Alan Mak completed a different kind of Hong Kong crime thriller – despite pressure from production house Media Asia to “add more action sequences” and instead tackle the country’s identity crisis with nuance. Instead of literally swapping faces, as the absent Woo had done with John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in his 1997 Hollywood sensation Face/Off, Mak wanted his characters to “switch fates”. The result was a work less concerned with spectacle than with human nature, drawing suspense from crisp editing, intricate plotting and suspenseful dialogue, achieving some of the greatest shocks and twists in contemporary cinema in the process.
One of the Hellish businessgreatest asset was the incredible cast – and indeed, the sight of icons Leung and Lau in a battle of wits on screen was almost comparable to De Niro and Pacino facing each other in Heat. But the roles they were cast in were unconventional given their reputation, adding a whole other level of undermining to a film riddled with double entendres.
Leung was known as a charismatic protagonist, admired for his charm and gentleness in films like Chungking Express and In the mood for love (the latter of which earned him the Best Actor Award at Cannes in 2000). As an undercover cop portraying lowlife in infernal affairs, however, he is disheveled, unkempt and broken – with a greasy mustache and arm in a cast. The hawkish Lau was also known as the “heroic gangster” of movies like While tears flow, or the sympathetic unhinged motorcyclist in cult smash A moment of romance. Here he is a nuanced villain, calculated in his actions but vulnerable at the core.
It’s a move that’s further illustrated in the roles of Police Inspector Wong and his polar opposite, the gangster Hon Sam. The first is played by Category III exploitation king Anthony Wong, known for his intense portrayals of serial killers (Ebola syndrome) and Triad enforcers (Hard boiled). Meanwhile, the portly and intimidating Eric Tsang was previously typecast for playing bumbling sidekicks in mafia movies – and since 1995, he’s also been the long-running host of a hit TV variety show.
These role reversals paid off. Hellish business was nominated for 16 Hong Kong Film Awards after its huge box office success, with all four actors being nominated for major awards. At both the aforementioned and Golden Horse awards (Taiwan’s Oscars), Leung and Wong walked away with Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, while the film itself won awards including Best Picture and Best Director. It was submitted to the Academy Awards the following year, when Miramax acquired the rights for film distribution in the US.
New disruption and financial devastation followed in Hong Kong – this time due to the SARS epidemic. (And despite highlights like author’s work Johnny Toand nominated for an Academy Award Better daysthe industry still hasn’t returned to its glory days.) Nevertheless, two more films followed within a year to create an impressive, Godfather-ish trilogy. But the greater flattery would be found in the film’s repeated imitation (or duplication) abroad in the years that followed.
Recent South Korean hits like New world and Hunt (both led by Squid game star Lee Jung-jae) have more than a few parallels in their stories of infiltrators and espionage in the criminal underworld and secret service respectively. But even more successful was 2006 the departed, which moves events from Hong Kong to Boston, replaces the Chinese Triads with an Irish mob led by Jack Nicholson, and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in the roles played by Leung and Lau. Incredibly, it’s still the only movie for which Martin Scorsese won the Oscars for Best Director.
The deceptions and moral ambiguities explored in Hellish business may never be fully replicated in Hong Kong cinema again. As of 2021, the industry is now subject to strict censorship laws courtesy of the Chinese government (yes, an alternate ending already had to be included for Hellish business‘Mainland release). But with new identity crises among Hong Kong residents in the present in the wake of disruption and protest in recent years, Hellish business has never felt so relevant.
While the trilogy couldn’t quite save 2000s Hong Kong cinema, it did, as Justin Chang (Los Angeles Times film critic and Criterion author) says so, give it “some of its best hours”. In 2022, the allure is still striking; Hellish business remains a story worth turning your head for.
The Infernal Affairs trilogy is available for to buy on Criterion Collection Blu-ray on November 28.