Willow Yang, Imagination Connoisseur and featured blogger, provides her twin reviews of Hong Kong’s INFERNAL AFFAIRS (2002) and the Martin Scorecese re-make of it, THE DEPARTED (2006) and says while the pictures are similar, their cultural perspectives and directors bring out differences that make both films worth watching.

Greetings Rob,

A number of months ago I had sent in a question asking about the Hong Kongese film INFERNAL AFFAIRS and its American remake, Martin Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED, and which I should watch first. Having seen both movies now, I felt like writing up a comparison of the two. In short, while both were great, I thought that INFERNAL AFFAIRS was the better-made of the two films; however, I did find THE DEPARTED to be more entertaining.

Even though the plots of the two movies were virtually identical, the tones felt markedly different. THE DEPARTED definitely deserved its R-rating with its healthy dosage of profanity, innuendo, and more graphic, and sometimes a little gratuitous, violence. INFERNAL AFFAIRS was much tamer in comparison; it did not have any overt sexual content, there wasn’t much swearing (at least not in the Mandarin-dubbed version), and the violence was considerably toned down and used only when it was needed for the story. I was quite surprised that it was also rated R on Netflix; it should have easily been a PG13.

In relation to its rating, I thought THE DEPARTED contained much more spectacle; the movie had almost an hour longer runtime, with much of the added scenes devoted to the gangsters, making it an equal parts cop and gangster film, whereas INFERNAL AFFAIRS was much more cop-centric.

I think that the inclusion of additional scenes in THE DEPARTED may be Scorsese playing to his strengths with making colourful gangster films, and adding more of his flavour. The result is a flashier, more hedonistic, and dare I say “Americanized” remake of the much quieter Hong Kongese original.

THE DEPARTED had plenty of bravado; it had Mark Wahlberg’s wisecracking Dignam and Jack Nicholson’s devilish Costello chewing up the scenery with every moment that they were on screen. The roles of their counterparts in INFERNAL AFFAIRS were considerably reduced: each character played their part in serving the plot without drawing the audience’s attention away from the main story. In this sense, THE DEPARTED felt more individualistic whereas INFERNAL AFFAIRS was more collective; the characters weren’t vying for the spotlight in the latter.

Even though I found THE DEPARTED to be more fun, when it came to the two leads (Tony Leung’s Chan and Andy Lau’s Lau vs Leonardo DiCaprio’s Costigan and Matt Damon’s Sullivan) I did prefer INFERNAL AFFAIRS to THE DEPARTED.

While I quite enjoyed DiCaprio’s performance – he was one of the few characters from a Scorsese film that I found to be quite sympathetic – I appreciated Leung’s take more. DiCaprio was flashier: he did quite a bit of yelling and screaming, which worked for the tone of the movie he was in. Leung’s performance was much subtler. He was quiet for the most part; a lot of his emotions weren’t expressed by words, but by his face, the loneliness in his eyes.

THE DEPARTED lent a good amount of time delving into Costigan’s background and family; INFERNAL AFFAIRS was much more concise with Chan. There was just one shot of him standing in the alleyway, saluting to his deceased father, and that was it. That was all we really needed to know.

I vastly preferred the character of Lau to his counterpart, Sullivan. Now, I certainly don’t have anything against Matt Damon (I’m not Jimmy Kimmel), but Sullivan was just a smug, smirking punk that I spent the entire movie wanting to punch in the face. Lau was a considerably more complex and charismatic character. He wore an outward veneer of coolness, but there was turmoil and conflict beneath his façade as he found himself questioning his identity, the kind of person he actually wanted to be. The differences between the two is probably best exemplified by their reasons for killing their bosses: Sullivan killed Costello because he was afraid the latter would rat him out to the FBI; Lau killed Hon because he wished to be free to choose his own destiny.

While the plot of the two films were virtually identical, there were a few deviations, probably the most significant being the ending. The conclusion of THE DEPARTED was pretty clear-cut and satisfying: Sullivan got what’s coming to him in the form of a bullet to the face. The conclusion of INFERNAL AFFAIRS was more open-ended. Lau survives, and there is a final flashback of him back at the police academy, watching Chan depart and stating that he wished their places could be switched. It appears that he has gotten what he had wanted. However, INFERNAL AFFAIRS referenced the idea of Continuous Hell in Buddhism; indeed, the movie concluded with a final Buddhist quote: “He who is in Continuous Hell never dies. Longevity is a big hardship in Continuous Hell.”

Did Lau actually get away with it, or is his punishment in his very continued existence, in living in a hell of perpetual guilt and fear? Granted, I haven’t watched the sequels (to INFERNAL AFFAIRS) yet, so perhaps there is a more definitive answer; however, I did quite like the ambiguity here.

I will conclude my discussion by referring back to the question that I had initially posed to you.

Having seen both movies now, I’ve got to say that I do disagree with you over which movie I’d recommend watching first to those who haven’t seen either. I actually would watch THE DEPARTED first, not because I think it’s the better movie, but because I believe part of its strength lies in its surprises. The deaths in the movie were shocking, not just because they involved main characters getting offed, but also in the way that they were (no pun intended) executed.

When Queenan and Costigan were killed, it was quick and sudden, without any of the glamour that you’d expect from a movie. The deaths were unheroic; they were meaningless, which was what made them impactful.

The deaths of their counterparts in INFERNAL AFFAIRS were much more melodramatic: there was Amazing Grace playing, slow motion, and black and white flashbacks. On paper it does sound a little cheesy, but within the context of the movie it worked; however, because I feel that the death scenes were more emotionally-driven in INFERNAL AFFAIRS, it isn’t as detrimental to spoil them as it would be for THE DEPARTED. That is just my reasoning anyways.

Best regards,
Willow

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