Originally written for suite101.com and published on 19/04/09, now hosted by Associated Content.

Infernal Affairs came out in late 2002 and quickly broke box office records in its native Hong Kong. A fast paced, tense and densely plotted thriller it gained a considerable audience around the world, which in turn led to its inevitable Hollywood remake The Departed that won a raft of Oscars.The plot centres on two moles that a Triad gang and police special unit have each embedded in their enemy. The opposing moles are unaware of each other’s existence but seem to share a desire to escape their double lives. When events transpire to reveal to both sides that they each have a mole in their organisation, both moles find themselves entrusted with locating themselves, and begin a desperate search to locate each other.

Use of Music for Thematic Purposes

The music used in the film is mainly for the conventional purposes of underscoring action, or maintaining tension in chase sequences; however, in a few scenes music is used for a different end. The central two characters Yan (Tony Leung) and Ming (Andy Lau) meet early in the film, as yet oblivious to each other’s real identities, in a hi-fi shop where they share a fairly long scene bonding over the merits of the various sound systems.

The music they used to test out the various systems is used at a couple of points in the film as a type of theme, underscoring the moments where they act in comparable ways, or when they nearly discover each other. All serving to underline the notion that they are more alike than they are different, shared moments that indicate the friendship that under different circumstances they might have shared.

Subtle Sound Design of Kinson Tsang

Sound Designer Kinson Tsang may be relatively unknown to English-language audiences, however he is prolific and award winning in Hong Kong cinema – notably working on Fruit Chan’s Dumplings – and from his work here it is clear why. The sound is manipulated with a careful touch, highlighting and underscoring the action without feeling the need to overemphasise the subtext.

A central conceit of the film is the use of Morse code by Yan and SP Wong (Anthony Wong) to communicate. Amid all the high-tech equipment that both sides use in their attempts to outwit each other, this old-fashioned communication technique keeps Yan hidden. In moments of quiet, Yan’s drumming fingers seem a product of his tension and discomfort in his role. Yet once his use of Morse code is revealed, this takes on another meaning entirely.

In this way tiny sounds that seem insignificant can take on greater meaning. Something that initially seems innocuous can have a sinister meaning, while sounds that at first seem threatening – such as an early scene where Yan is asleep in a chair while a young woman works on a computer, glancing at him circumspectly, on his awakening is revealed to be his psychiatrist playing solitaire and watching over him affectionately as he sleeps in her office – actually have a benign origin.

Comparisons with The Departed

The use of sound in the original film and its American remake could hardly be more different. While the cinematic experience of The Departed was accompanied by a soundscape that could only be described as bombastic, overwhelming the viewer with the excess of volume, shouting and noise, Infernal Affairs takes a different tack altogether.

Making it a quieter film in which the characters do not need to shout to be heard, pulling back when the action requires quiet for a moment of calm or a laden silence as tension builds. Consequently, this lends its moments of chaos and carnage, both on screen and soundtrack, an increased potency.