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November 22-28, 2006

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Cult Leader

'Infernal' Love: Hong Kong cult thriller vs. Scorsese remake

By Steve Palopoli

MARTIN SCORSESE finally returned to form with The Departed, his best film since 1990's Goodfellas. But there's one group that he didn't win over: diehard fans of Infernal Affairs, the 2002 Hong Kong film from directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak that was the basis for The Departed.

IA fans have been all over the Internet about Scorsese's film, and they are not happy campers. They don't like that Scorsese is on record as saying that his film is "not a remake," or that star Jack Nicholson and writer William Monahan claim to have refused to watch Infernal Affairs before working on the film. Some of them call the downplaying of the original film Hollywood culture-vulture imperialism, or even downright racist.

Of course it's a ridiculous notion that The Departed is somehow not a remake of Infernal Affairs. Scorsese's best action scenes are lifted practically verbatim from the Hong Kong film, and Monahan worked from the script for Infernal Affairs. Sorry, but if The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, The Departed is a remake of Infernal Affairs. End of story.

However, the comments of the American cast and crew have been taken somewhat out of context. It's obvious to me from reading interviews with Scorsese that he meant he wanted to make something more than just a straightforward remake. I think "reimagining" is a pointless phrase—you have to reimagine anything to remake it, unless you're Gus Van Sant—but I get Scorsese's point. He wanted to take a story he liked and emphasize different themes and characters, to tell it a different way. Which is exactly what he did.

Let's be clear about something else, too: There's a notion going around that The Departed is not just a remake of the first film, but of all three Infernal Affairs films made in Hong Kong. If you've seen them, you know that's not true. Infernal Affairs 3 has nothing at all to do with Scorsese's film. The comparison with Infernal Affairs 2 is a bit more understandable, since it's a prequel and would fit into that first 40 minutes or so before The Departed picks up the story from the original film. But IA2 is a crime-family story more like Godfather II than The Departed, and the plotline, other than providing background on the two main characters (played by younger actors in IA2), is very different. To sum up: The Departed = Infernal Affairs, but not its sequels.

That the comparison of these two films has gotten mired in the specter of cultural piracy is a shame, since each is a unique work of art in its own way. Oddly enough, I find the English titles of both articulate their differences quite well. "Infernal affairs" is a clever, police-thriller-type pun that hints at something deeper (specifically, Buddhist scripture's concept of "Continual Hell," the worst of the Eight Hells, which the characters in the film can bring down on themselves—or reject—through their choices). It nicely describes Lau and Mak's film, a claustrophobic genre piece that rises above its plot machinations thanks to amazing performances and also the way it works its basic setup (a double-agent for both the good guys and the bad guys) from every possible psychoanalytical angle. It's feverishly focused on the dualism of its two main characters; everything else is secondary.

Not so with The Departed. As the title implies, this is a movie that's more about the dead than the living. The two main characters here are haunted not so much by each other as by ghosts—legacies they're afraid they can't live up to, sons and fathers they never had, dreams unfulfilled. Almost the exact inverse of Infernal Affairs in style, this is an art film that reaches down into the crime genre for a plot on which to hang its themes.

In other words, where Infernal Affairs sweats, The Departed breathes. To me, Scorsese's film is a richer and more complex story that offers a better explanation for why these characters are living these outrageous and potentially lethal lies. I think it's an amazing film in many ways. But I have to admit that after repeat viewings of each, I like Infernal Affairs better. Because it's so much more intimate, the tension hits you where you live in a way that it doesn't in The Departed. Many who've seen both movies have marveled over the fact that they seem to feel the weight of certain characters' deaths more in the Hong Kong film, and I agree. It's not that Tony Leung and Andy Lau's performances are that much better than Leonardo DiCaprio's and Matt Damon's, but the makers of Infernal Affairs have put their characters' stories so up in our faces that we have more of a personal stake—it's almost like we have to live with the consequences of their choices, as well. At those moments of "Continual Hell," the makers of the two versions move in different directions. If you've only seen how Scorsese steps back, get a copy of Infernal Affairs to see how Lau and Mak push you right up into it.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite American remake of a foreign film here.

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