Oh, Reel-y: Moles, bullies, and cowboys

Infernal Affairs 1 & 2
Hong Kong, 2002/2003

It’s well known that Scorsese‘s Oscar-winning The Departed, a clever movie about an undercover cop matching wits with a gangster who’s infiltrated the police force, is a remake of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs. What’s not known to those who’ve only seen the American version is that the original is the superior film. Where The Departed differentiates the two moles at the center of the film into comfy good guy versus bad guy roles, Infernal Affairs takes a more nuanced and complicated look at the motivations of Andy Lau’s gangster-in-cop’s-clothing character. And in the original, there’s no painfully transparent rat symbolism or Marky Mark to save the day.


Where Infernal Affairs is a finely-tuned thriller, slick and sleek, the sequel–or prequel I should say–is a full-on mob epic. Set in the years leading up to Infernal Affairs, the film tracks the movements of our would-be moles as they grow from raw, wide-eyed newbies into hardened sleeper agents. Ultimately, however, the film’s emphasis lies on their superiors: triad kingpin Eric Tsang and fatherly Police Superintendent Anthony Wong (think Jack Nicholson and Martin Sheen’s characters, respectively, in The Departed). In a brilliant stroke, the prequel reveals that the two were once close, when the superintendent was a dirty cop and the triad top dog a loyal lackey, before circumstances shuffled everything around. It’s a masterful follow-up that makes the viewers challenge everything they knew, or thought they knew, about the first film.

Also notable in Infernal Affairs II is Francis Ng, who is magnetic as the ice-cold triad leader trying to go straight, but not before getting some revenge for his murdered father. If you liked The Departed, see Infernal Affairs 1 and 2. If you’ve seen Infernal Affairs, see the prequel. And If you’ve already seen them both, see them again.

***

The King of Pigs
Korea, 2012

It appears that our neighbors across the Pacific are grappling with the same bullying epidemic that we’re currently facing in this country. The King of Pigs is an animated film about the classism and social hierarchies in Korean schools and the bullying that arises because of it. In the film, two Korean men revisit their high school days, recounting the daily intimidation and violence they faced and the futile ways they tried to cope. While the past may not be a place we can, or want to, visit, we also never fully escape its reach.

Animated using digital techniques, the film richly renders detailed characters whose faces twist in grotesque gestures, revealing their pain and fury, on top of still backgrounds. There are graphic images and brutal scenes of violence, as young people try desperately to make sense of an increasingly cruel world. The King of Pigs is a dark, nihilistic view of the ways the world lets us down and a study of the violence we do to ourselves and others.

***

Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley
Korea, 2011

It’s not an Asian film festival unless there’s a Korean revenge film, and the literally titled Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley is this year’s entry.

The movie wears its influences on its sleeves: it has a spaghetti western vibe, with the nameless and stoic protagonist rocking a red bandanna and cowboy boots as he unleashes his brand of vigilante justice on those who’ve wronged him, and it tips a hat to Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, with a notebook death list. It’s also got the standard overly elaborate plot about corporate malfeasance and dirtied water supplies, as well as a colorful crew of gangsters with names like Cutter, Axe, and Ghostface led by a boss in a wheelchair.

The film is unique in that it’s shot in a naturalistic fashion, looking almost like a documentary or an indie drama starring Michelle Williams. Ultimately, this makes the action more brutal and the violence more intense. Bloody Fight may not have the style and panache of Oldboy or the other Park Chan-wook vengeance films, but the pain is visceral. You’ll wish you saved your money and left the popcorn at the concession stand.

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