In 2006 Martin Scorsese released THE DEPARTED, an American crime-thriller packed with a powerful cast. The film went on to become an instant classic within the genre, coming away with four academy awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. Scorsese’s picture is certainly deserving of the praise and recognition it received, but through his creation of THE DEPARTED he unknowingly created a cultural discussion between his film and the Hong Kong original INFERNAL AFFAIRS.
These two films, which share the same story and tone, manage to firmly root themselves as distinctly unique films due to how the film’s approach the cinematic characterization of genre, action and dialogue in respect to their nation of origin. At the core of the comparison is the time difference between the two films. INFERNAL AFFAIRS runs at a brisk 100 minutes, enough time for Lau to tell his story and that’s it. Comparatively, THE DEPARTED’s theatrical cut clocks in at 151 minutes. While knowing that the two films tell relatively the same story, we are left with the question of where does this near extra hour of film come from?
While THE DEPARTED has slight plot deviations, changing the ending mostly, it doesn’t add up to the large time difference. As I stated earlier though, the act of being an adaptation of a Chinese film places a new cultural identity on THE DEPARTED, meaning the film has to work as a representative of Western film making. Besides the ending change, which becomes a much more explicit and traditional closure, the biggest change between the two films is the focus on romance. In INFERNAL AFFAIRS the relationship between Dr. Lee (Kelly Chen) and Chen (Tony Chiu Wai Leung) is pushed aside for the work relationship between Chen and Inspector Lau (Andy Lau). THE DEPARTED grows this by not only bringing forward the romantic sub-plot, but making it a love triangle between the main officers.
The inclusion of this triangle narrows down the central difference between these two films; that being INFERNAL AFFAIRS wants to be a more psychologically nuanced film, THE DEPARTED wants to be more masculine. The Inspectors in INFERNAL AFFAIRS aim to become better men through their work, honor, and other men. Characters in THE DEPARTED, specifically DiCaprio and Damon’s characters only seem to view improvement through sex, something the aforementioned love triangle provides. In fact, the sexualized object that is Vera Farmiga’s character is actually a combination of two different characters from INFERNAL AFFAIRS. It is key to the story that these two moles are professional rivals, but Farmiga’s character in THE DEPARTED exists only to make them sexual rivals as well. Even the gritty setting of Boston appears to give the film a more masculine appearance as compared to the clean look of the Hong Kong skyline.
This added sexual tension allows us to see how Hollywood tries to remove the subtlety and adding definition to the characters. Throughout INFERNAL AFFAIRS we are left questioning whether or not these character truly want to change their ways, however THE DEPARTED tries to clearly define Leonardo DiCaprio’s character as the protagonist with Matt Damon quickly falling into the role of a villain. To prove this I want to take a brief look at a scene towards the end of the films, that being the core confrontation between the two moles.
In THE DEPARTED Damon’s character quickly goes on the defensive, vilifying DiCaprio’s actions. In comparison, Infernal keeps the scene calmer with Lau stating his desire to change. By having both of the characters exist in a plane of moral-grey the ending scene of INFERNAL AFFAIRS remains cinematically tenser, especially without the overly vulgar language of THE DEPARTED. This highlights the largest differences between the Hong Kong film industry as compared to Hollywood: Hong Kong keeps everything quick, sharp and punctuating while Hollywood feels chaotic and repetitious with a looming feeling of dread over the entire film.
When we look at how Andrew Lau filmed INFERNAL AFFAIRS in comparison to Hollywood’s version we can see that Lau is more interested in creating an intricate web of suspense that is more interesting and fun to navigate as a viewer. At the same time, Hollywood is more interested in keeping the audience always aware of the films events, as such we are presented with a film more interested in exploring the psychology of violence, trust, and characters through masculinity over setting and story. While both films offer the same story, and are great in their own right, it is after watching both of these films that the difference between Western and Eastern film making really shines.
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