Mark Kermode - Eastern promise

A dazzling, befuddling prequel and a visually poetic work. By Mark Kermode

Infernal Affairs II

British filmgoers seeking entertaining visions of hell on earth are well served by a plethora of Hadean-inflected Asian imports currently gracing our cinema screens. Alongside the demonic curses of Ju-on: The Grudge (which the director, Takashi Shimizu, is currently remaking in English for producer Sam "Spider-Man" Raimi), we have a welcome re-release of Hiroshi Teshigahara's bizarre Sixties gem Woman of the Dunes. This nightmarish allegory in which a man is cast into the eternal pit reminds us that Japanese cinema was giving international audiences the creeps long before the advent of Hideo Nakata's Ringu movies. Next week, the subtle South Korean shocker A Tale of Two Sisters plays devilish tricks on the viewer with its unnerving fable of dark family secrets and ghostly identity crises, provoking scares that positively demand a second viewing. Meanwhile from Hong Kong comes this week's new release Infernal Affairs II. The first sequel to Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's acclaimed thriller about the blurring of identities between an undercover cop and a triad mole, this film further explores the Nietzschean dangers of gazing too long into the abyss.

A heady cocktail of Buddhism and bullets, the original Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao) was a ground-breaking international hit that effectively blended an action-packed crime-thriller narrative with a Dantesque descent into the deepest circles of hell. Infernal Affairs II continues this metaphysical marriage, presenting a purgatorial netherworld in which police and thieves are again often indistinguishable, and littered with gnomic quotations about the persistence of "uninterrupted time" and the karmic balance between good and evil ("what goes around comes around").

While international superstars Andy Lau and Tony Leung previously provided the heavyweight theatrics as the duplicitous anti-heroes Ming and Yan, this prequel casts eastern heart-throbs Edi-son Chen and Shawn Yue as younger versions of these characters, reprising the roles they played during the flashback sequences of the original film. Spanning the years between 1991 and 1997 (its climax significantly coinciding with the hand-over of Hong Kong sovereignty from Britain to China), Infernal Affairs II owes a heavy debt to Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather: Part II, exploring the labyrinthine pasts of Ming and Yan in a manner that is both dazzling and befuddling. Few will manage to negotiate all the plot and character twists without ever becoming infernally confused. Yet even when the plot occasionally passeth all understanding, the reliably engaging support of Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang provides a firm dramatic anchor, with Tsang's hefty presence frequently stealing the show as the affable gangster who will ultimately become Wong's mortal enemy.

The result may lack the crossover appeal that helped make the first Infernal Affairs an international hit, but there's enough stylish madness in Infernal Affairs II to keep fans of highbrow Hong Kong action eager for the arrival of Infernal Affairs III, which follows hot on its heels.

Like so many of its Asian ante-cedents, Infernal Affairs has been snapped up by Hollywood, and a Stateside reworking is currently in pre-production under the reported helmsmanship of Martin Scorsese. Thankfully, however, the influence of eastern cinema upon western movies is not limited to perfunctory English-language remakes. While it may be tempting to see the Scottish writer/director Richard Jobson as following in the tradition of European auteurs such as Terence Davies, Ken Loach or even Francois Truffaut, his feature debut, 16 Years of Alcohol, owes far more to the work of Hong Kong legend Wong Kar Wai, whose influential Chungking Express was coincidentally part-lensed by Infernal Affairs director Andrew Lau.

Although dealing with such solidly down-to-earth subjects as drink, violence and familial strife, 16 Years of Alcohol is a visually poetic work that unfolds in flashback as a battered Frankie lies (dying) in an alleyway, having been kicked unconscious by his former gang mates. Impressively photographed by John Rhodes, and hauntingly orchestrated by Jobson, the film bristles with movie-buff enthusiasm as Frankie is caught up in adolescent dreams of Bruce Lee and A Clockwork Orange, and experiments with jukebox pop culture in entertaining fashion.

Benefiting from an excellent central performance by Kevin McKidd (the sidelined star of Trainspotting who now regularly outshines his more high-profile team-mates), 16 Years of Alcohol is a very impressive first outing for the former Skids frontman Jobson, proving that pop stars don't always wind up making rubbish movies after all. On the contrary, on this evidence, Jobson is a promising film-maker who may well blossom into a major home-grown talent. Now there's a genuinely unexpected plot twist . . .

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