Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Movie archive: Infernal Affairs vs. The Departed

Martin Scorsese’s 2006 epic film The Departed was the big story of the 79th Academy Awards of that year, winning 4 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. The film that inspired it, the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, received only limited release in the West and did not even receive a nomination for Best Foreign Film.

Considering Hollywood audiences had never even heard of Infernal Affairs, it can’t have been all that great, can it? Yet Scorsese adapts it and turns it into something worthy of major awards. So hats off to Scorsese right?

Well, yes and no. Scorsese is indeed a great director, and deserves to have won a Best Director Oscar for one of his films. But The Departed? It’s not his best film, and its not even a better film than Infernal Affairs.

The announcement at the Oscars that The Departed was based on a Japanese film (rather than one from Hong Kong) is emblematic of the tunnel vision that afflicts the American film industry and viewing public. Because while The Departed is a good film, it is not a patch on its source material.

Despite lack of recognition in the West, Infernal Affairs was much lauded in Asia. It received 16 nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards, winning 7 of them including Best Picture, Best Director (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak) and Best Actor (Tony Leung). It was touted as a return to form for Hong Kong cinema, which had up to that point been treading water in comparison to earlier times.

It centres around Yan (Tony Leung) and Ming (Andy Lau), two cops leading parallel lives on opposite sides of the law. Yan has been deep undercover for 10 years and has maanged to infiltrate the triad gang run by Hon Sam (Eric Tsang), but living that lifestyle so long has taken its toll on him. Ming, on the other hand, is Sam’s mole in the police department, and due to his underworld connection has risen through the ranks quickly. While his corrupt manipulations help keep Sam’s gang one step ahead of the law, he too is troubled by his double existence.

Actors of great gravitas, Leung and Lau can express as much with a look as with words, and Leung in particular captures the loneliness that haunts these two men. Only Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong), Yan’s sole contact with the police force, knows that Yan is anything more than a street thug. Ming on the other hand has a successful career and an impending marriage, yet feels burdened by his criminal secret, known to only his boss Sam.

After a police attempt to nab Sam’s gang in the act of a drug deal is foiled by Ming’s tip-off, it becomes clear to both Wong and Sam that they have moles in their respective organisations. It falls to Yan and Ming to discover and weed out the other, and it is this cat-and-mouse game that gives the movie its central dramatic tension. And the ending, without giving anything away, is a killer.

The Departed follows many aspects of IA closely, even closely replicating some of its locations. But screenwriter William Monahan transports the setting to Boston’s gritty south side, and the triad is replaced by the Irish mob, run by Frank Costello (an entertainingly over-the-top turn by Jack Nicholson). Leonardo di Caprio puts in a solid shift as Billy Costigan, yet does not compare to Leung’s soulful performance in the role of undercover cop. Matt Damon is the dirty cop in the pay of Costello.

Scorsese gets great performances out of his top-notch cast (which also includes Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg and Ray Winstone), and the dialogue is sharp and clever. He spends time fleshing out Costigan’s background and infiltration of the gang; a good move in contrast to IA’s somewhat confusing opening scene-setting sequence. These aspects though do blow out the running time, from IA’s lean, taut 100 minutes to Departed’s somewhat bloated 151 minutes.
There is one major misstep in Scorsese’s film; Damon’s character Colin Sullivan. Andy Lau as Ming in IA was a increasingly conflicted character, with Lau hinted at the sadness behind the corruption. As a viewer, I found myself wanting him to get caught, yet part of me hoping he gets out of it unscathed. Despite Damon’s strong performance in Departed, Sullivan is less layered; he is merely unscrupulous, desperate and despicable, and I couldn’t wait for someone to bust a cap in his ass. It is difficult to feel any attachment to him, and it is because of this that The Departed sometimes just seems like a bunch of guys who you don’t particularly care about, trying to kill each other.


  1. Thanks, can't belive I speled it wrong, normaly I am very pedantic about speling. I've retrospectivly corected my mistake.


  2. (Dude, can you can't even guess how many spelling mistakes are there in your comment!!!)
    Mental article! Re5peKt!