Red Corner/Blue Corner – Infernal Affairs v The Departed

This regular feature puts original films in the ring against their remakes and lets them slug it out over 5 rounds. Feel free to disagree and leave your comments at the end.

As I explained in the introduction to cinematheque, I feel that film feeds itself. Cross pollination should occur between cinematic regions for it to develop and there’s nothing wrong with directors wearing influences firmly on their sleeves. However there is a big difference between dining on new ideas and eating your own tail. Authenticity is a subject to be debated in-depth and at a future moment. For now let’s just have a little fun.

Remakes are part of silver screen heritage, the classic 39 Steps a prime example, reaching audiences in 1935, 59 and 78. Theatre gives us numerous productions of the same story so why should cinema not chronicle its tales with multiple interpretations? Is the stage more worthy than the screen? What is not up for discussion is the fact that remakes divide opinion like politics. Certain films hold specific meaning with fans and to tamper with them can only be met with cries of blasphemy. But should we always be so precious?

In this new regular feature I plan to hold a versus match between an original production and its remake. Has an opportunistic director bled the spirit from a sacred cow or blown life into it? In this first instance let’s bring out the big guns and pit Infernal Affairs against The Departed.

In the red corner…Infernal Affairs

The Infernal Affairs Trilogy is the Godfather of Hong Kong. This once great cinematic region experienced tough times after their golden years of the 1990’s. Creative seeds fell on stony ground, the result being a glut of poor genre gangster flicks and candy floss romcoms. Andrew Lau didn’t only raise the bar when he released Infernal Affairs in 2002; he removed the bar and smashed it over the competition’s heads. The story involves a Triad Boss and a Police Inspector, the chess players. Their pawns are an undercover cop and his mirror image, a gangster mole in the police, each reporting to their respective secret bosses with identities unbeknown to the other. Infernal Affairs is a trilogy but in respect of impartiality and the weight class of this particular fight we’ll limit discussion to part 1.

In the blue corner… The Departed

Scorsese is a lover of movies and he often cherry picks from current and historical cinema. His keen eye discovered Infernal Affairs before the crowds and I’m sure rights were discussed prior to the film making an international splash. Scorsese’s movie is an altogether larger beast and takes in segments from parts two and three of the trilogy. The story remains true to the original as do the majority of characters. The key differences are setting and style. The American Director relocates the story to his own nation, setting it in Boston. The Irish Mafia substitute for Hong Kong’s Triads.

Round 1 – Star Power
Both films pulled out the stops on this front. Infernal Affairs secured the two biggest actors in a generation with Tony Leung and Andy Lau as the moles. In the background we have veteran character actors Erik Tsang as Triad Boss Sam and Anthony Wong delivering a wonderfully assured performance as Inspector Wong. It’s pretty much a dream team, and all perfectly cast.

The Departed follows suit. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, two of the most popular and successful actors in modern Hollywood take the leads. The main difference here is that the gang boss character takes emphasis and is played by the legendary Jack Nicholson. Anthony Wong’s character is broken up and shared between Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin. For better or worse it must be agreed that The Departed ups the ante on star power, even if only through force of numbers.

Round 2 – Performances

The Departed’s jewel in the crown is Jack Nicholson, and he plays a caricatured version of…erm…Jack Nicholson. He serves up more ham than the local deli, but high quality prosciutto and never less than watchable. Wahlberg and Ray Winstone give enjoyable turns as opposing co-stars (although Ray’s accent aims for Boston but takes a detour at London’s east end). Matt Damon hits the nail on the head with his confident communication of a man eaten up by internal conflict. The problem is DiCaprio. His movie star status is undeniable but when playing the tough guy part he’s unbelievable. The actor cogs can be seen turning in the background, a glimpse behind the stage curtain.

Infernal Affairs is perfectly cast and the performances are faultless. Lau (in the Damon role) takes a more subtle approach than the American. His sharp vulpine features suit the cunning trickery of his character Ming. With fewer fireworks but more flair, Tony Leung expresses the torment of a man sacrificing his morality for the greater good in ways DiCaprio is unable to. Eric Tsang has less importance or screen time than Nicholson but is dangerous and unpredictable as Triad boss Sam. The revelation is Anthony Wong as Leung’s father figure and overseer. Wong is a varied performer (Hong Kong’s Christopher Walken in my book) but he has never before class as he does here, an A grade turn. Inspector Wong is a flawed man who competes with Sam as much for ego as vocational necessity.

Round 3 – Story

Scorsese is largely faithful to Alan Mak’s screenplay and if anything tries to build on its base by dragging in strands which Mak conserves for part 2. This decision to hold back is Mak’s masterstroke. William Monahan’s script for The Departed is at times bloated and messy, like a drunk at chucking out time it staggers around inebriated and fun but not always moving in the right direction. The story of exact opposites staring into the mirror is complex and confusing at times, for both characters and viewers. This is why a streamlined and clean approach is a necessity. Infernal affairs doesn’t carry an ounce of fat.

Round 4 – Cinematography

Like any Martin Scorsese film The Departed looks quality. The Boston backdrop is an interesting alternative to an overused New York and the grimy bars and run-down neighbourhoods of Southy are perfectly captured. As a metaphor for the contrary nature of its characters Infernal Affairs reflects street level dirt in skyscraper glass and steel. Cinematographer Yiu-Fai Lai (supposedly under advice from ace lens man Christopher Doyle) creates beauty and contrast, letting us view Hong Kong like never before. The famous rooftop scene with the world famous harbour backdrop is now iconic.

Round 5 – Direction
The difference in the films seems to lie in the career stages of the respective directors. Scorsese’s popularity actually hides the fact that he is one of the most inventive and important filmmakers of the 20th century, but we are now in the 21st. In this instance he gives us a well produced and acted Gangster movie, nothing more. Andrew Lau on the other hand explores the dichotomous nightmare of two men trapped in lives of perpetual lies and confusion of self. The film is like a perfectly split embryo growing into twin realities. The title refers to a level of hell, the infernal situation these men are help in.

And the winner is… Infernal Affairs

The Departed stands up well in the early rounds with its star power and enjoyable performances but it is a far less precise work than Infernal Affairs. Scorsese’s remake is very welcome and one of the few quality movies to hit mainstream cinema screens in 2006.

Lau however creates a visually clever film with pitch perfect performances. It’s lean and fresh and finally finishes off the lumbering Hollywood beast with a last round knockout.

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