In a slick chrome and black Hong Kong, two halves of the police force war with each other over methods and tactics. One one side: the operations department – active, aggressive, channeling the “we break the law to enforce the law” ethos celebrated in HK films since at least the mid 80s, when Jackie Chan, Corey Yuen, and John Woo took police abuse scandals of the 1970s and turned them into complicated but undeniably heroic tales of vigilante cops. On the other: administration – cautious, scheming men with nice suits, advanced degrees, and even more advanced hair. The conflict is between the improvisatory, morally gray cops of Hong Kong’s past and the bureaucratic functionaries of its post-Handover future, united above all by a respect for the minutiae of the rule of law. The allegory is not subtle, but the film doesn’t dwell, pushing relentlessly from one tightly-constructed suspense sequence to another.
Borrowing the structure of High and Low, split exactly in half, the first section follows the crime: the kidnapping of an Emergency Unit van and its five police officers and their weapons and subsequent ransom handoff. There’s a struggle for control, Crimson Tide-style as The Other Tony Leung, the Operations head (whose son, played by Eddie Peng, is one of the kidnapped), is supplanted by Aaron Kwok, the Administration head, while the Commissioner (notorious weasel Michael Wong) is out of town. The second half follows the fallout from the operation, as it becomes clear that it was an inside job and each faction works to find out exactly who was responsible, pulling in outside investigative organizations led by a zealous young anti-corruption cop (Aarif Rahman Lee) and the Justice Department Secretary himself, Andy Lau.
The movie swept the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2012, and it’s the best successor to Infernal Affairs I’ve yet seen outside the Milkyway Image universe. There are a few unremarkable action scenes, but lots of tension and light reflected in glass and gorgeous overhead images of a Hong Kong totally disconnected from reality. This is pointedly not a film about real people or real life: its drama of control plays out in high tech boardrooms, on computer screens, and atop skyscrapers. Even the character names are phony: Leung and Kwok are named after stars Waise Lee and Sean Lau (aka Lau Ching-wan). At one point, Kwok eats a bowl of noodles his wife has made for him. No one else ever eats anything.