Monday, October 09, 2006

Infernally Departed

(This entry has been revised as of 10 Oct. 2006)

If you haven’t seen the original film where it’s based on, then you’ll find Hollywood’s The Departed (2006) an excellent thriller with tons of twists and turns. But if you’ve watched Hong Kong’s excellent Infernal Affairs (2002) then you’ll be slightly disappointed at how Hollywood has cleaned up the more ambiguous Asian version.

The Departed hews very closely to the set-up of the original: the mob places a mole inside the police force; unknown to them the police also places an undercover agent deep into their ranks. But in the Hong Kong version this doppelganger switcheroo happens years ago. So this long-time arrangement impacts on the psyches of these two moles. By living on the opposite side of the law, both men are now in deep conflict over who they were before versus who they have become. Living a lie blurs one’s identity; at the end of the movie, who’s to say who is really the bad guy?

In the Hollywood version, the characters are more clear-cut. Good cop di Caprio. Bad cop Damon. Badder baddie Jack Nicholson, chewing up the scenery with glee; it’s a mesmerizing performance and a delight to watch. Leonardo di Caprio and Matt Damon also turn in powerful performances, although I personally wished their characters were several years older just like in the original. Even Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg manage to hold their own very well. This being a Martin Scorsese film, the acting is top-notch. The editing is brilliant—the build-up is relentless but well paced. And this script manages to retain this streak of morbid humor, maybe even exceeding the original.

However I prefer the Hong Kong version because it has an added layer of complexity to its main characters and their dilemma. In that version Andy Lau (House Of The Flying Daggers) plays the mole inside the police force, while Tony Leung (In The Mood For Love, Hero) is the undercover cop who’s now a trusted right-hand man of gangster head Eric Tsang. What’s different is that the switching happened early on in their careers, when Lau was about to graduate from the police academy and Leung was “kicked out” of the academy (actually part of the cover-up so that he could infiltrate the mob). So the two had spent a good number of years in their respective covers, long enough so that their characters are already torn at the start of the movie: Lau has found success, respectability and the prospect of a normal life more and more enticing; meanwhile, Leung found himself doing more and more crimes for the sake of keeping up appearances. This push-and-pull is ultimately resolved in the ending of the film, but knowing that the ending’s political implications will make Mainland China authorities skittish, the filmmakers made an alternate ending (available on DVD) for that market.

Meanwhile I think Hollywood abhors a messy ending—and believe me both versions have really messy endings. So Hollywood chose the usual “bad guy gets his comeuppance in the end” which, admittedly neater, is not as satisfying as the original’s audacity to let the bad guy go scot-free. Infernal raises the infernal question: Is the “bad guy” really a bad guy? Too bad Scorsese’s Departed departed from that route and took a safer, neater one instead.

If you’re interested in seeing both, maybe it will be better if you watch The Departed first before watching Infernal Affairs. In any case see both; each deserves an A.

Wonderful review. Can't wait to see both films. I will follow your advise and see Departed first (what a gorgeous cast!).
RAYMOND: What?! First Day High is not on your list of must-see films?
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