I watched The Departed recently. I was a bit worried beforehand. It’s a remake of the film Infernal Affairs (Mou Gaan Dou) produced in Hong Kong. I saw this movie in the theater in 2002 when it was originally released. It was a great movie and I thought it would be able to hold it’s own in the US markets, but I thought that of Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) also and that was turned into the unfortunate Vanilla Sky by Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe. As the Actors were doing their rounds pushing The Departed and the reviewers were gushing on television in the first week of its release, I got the impression that there was a distinct effort to obfuscate the fact that this was a remake of another film, and not just any film, a damn good film. Ebert doesn’t have anything to say about the movie (but does for IA) but Jim Emerson has a compilation of review snippets here, some giving a bit of mention to Infernal Affairs (IA). It’s noted that Scorsese lengthened the film to fill some gaps and that he created some plot holes in the process. It seems like the general public is gushing about Scorsese’s film while the critics are ho-hum on it.
Looking at the time-line the films depict, The Departed is a veritable sprint. There’s a minute for the young youth to encounter the world of Jack’s mob boss character Costello, to setup the benefactor relationship. This devise was about the only thing not in IA, but it wasn’t needed for the original . The time line for both covers the entrance to the academy, some training exercises, a meeting in the boss’s office for each of the two main characters, and the boot for one. This is where the-time lines diverge. The original IA film covered 9+ years and put the mob-mole, played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai in a more ranking position within his crew before we saw the busts that brought suspicion of spying. Scorsese didn’t do a great job of establishing a credible time-line and it seemed to pass rather quickly. One reason might be that he had a lot to squeeze into his film. There was a lot left to the imagination in Infernal Affairs. Because asking your audience to think or make inferences is something unheard of in the US (spoon fed or dead), Scorsese had a lot of questions to answer from the Infernal Affairs. Luckily for him, he had two more films to rely on. I haven’t seen any reference to the fact in any reviews of the Departed, but Infernal Affairs was actually a trilogy, with IA II establishing the characters positions as moles in their respective organizations and IA III drowning the viewer in complexity, adding detailed subplots at different points throughout the story and going nuts with some character development. The 3 films were also released in such close succession that they were obviously not as much money grabs, as a means to tell the whole story in palatable stages.
I watched The Departed with an eye on all the plot lines and little tricks that were lifted right from the original. The breaking of the cast, the breaking of the glass over a guy’s head, the personal identification collected by the mob boss, the spelling correction on the envelope, the finding of the envelope on the cop-mole’s desk, the mob boss taped calls and the girlfriend listening to them and confronting the cop-mole, the circumstances leading to the death of the police boss (being thrown off a building in both films no less) and the elevator killings of a fellow cop-mole, and the garage slaying of the mob boss by the cop-mole (with cell phone call included). If you pick and choose from the Infernal Affairs trilogy you can basically put together the entire Scorsese flick. Overall, the IA trilogy was far more complex and involved. In reflection, there was nothing wrong with The Departed as a movie, except the fact that it had already been made. There wasn’t anything substantially new. There was no adaptation, just simply a reapplication of the exact same story onto a white American plot line using English and an astronomically higher personnel budget. And they lost the dramatic scenery in the processes. I like the fact that you feel a bit like you’re peering into a bit of another culture that’s totally unfamiliar when you watch Infernal Affairs. The Departed seems a bit contrived on the other hand, a bit like it was a solution for the actors that were going to be used to tell the story. There was nothing revealing in the movie.
It’s a shame that we have to have multi-million dollar leading actors in our movies for them to be taken seriously here. I don’t know whether to assign the blame to Hollywood or the movie watching public. In the case of Infernal Affairs, was it a need for the film to be in English, the story to be about white people, or the plot to be more obvious? A bit of each perhaps but I wonder how much of each?
As an aside,I don’t mean to hold Infernal Affairs up as to be without fault. There was a number of issues I had with it and the third film in the series was painful at times. I don’t really care for the acting of Andy Lau or Kelly Chen – they should have been kept to commercials. Andy Lau is to me a representation of the “celebrity industry” that exists in Hong Kong. What occurs in the music industry in the US is nothing to how Hong Kong shapes it’s celebrity culture. It’s obvious that members of the individual entertainment industry sectors such as recording studios push a product on the public, and that they shape and polish the ‘product’ to sell. They collude with and bully radio stations to play their artists and they pump them for huge profits to the detriment of actual talent and diversity. That must happen everywhere. It’s taken to the extreme in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is the really the last bastion of Cantonese, and while it is spoken by a large number of people around the world, you’d be hard pressed to find a person under 50 outside of Hong Kong (or Macau) who only speaks Cantonese. And even in Hong Kong, it’s a primary of multiple languages. What does this have to do with anything. Well, there are about 7.5 million people in Hong Kong and Macau and that’s not a big audience for the record industry. But they’ve found a solution to maximize their profits and reduce their costs… RECYCLING! If they can use the same names and faces to launch advertising campaigns, star in films and produce music, they can concentrate their investment in a smaller group of performers. Celebrity is the center of the endeavor… hence the ‘star system‘ that exists. It’s just easier to cross-market. And it’s bullshit…