An Intercultural Film Comparison
In 2002, directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak released a cultural-defining film: Infernal Affairs. The film was produced in the context of a modern-day cops-and-triad thriller in which an undercover officer, Chan, was sent to infiltrate the triad on a long term sting. At the same time, triad boss Sam, sent in fresh initiates, one of which is Lau, into the police academy in an attempt to outwit the police department on a long-term basis. As the undercover & mole rises into the upper echelons of their organizations, their risk became higher along with the pressure of their double lives. When the two organization realize they have been compromised, the two main characters races to outwit and uncover the identity of each other before they are exposed. The story ends with a showdown between the two characters after the triad boss was eliminated, while Lau’s desire to bury his past identity as a mole from the triad, Chan pursued Lau and unwilling to give him a second chance. The film ends with Chan being killed by another mole in the police department who wanted to keep Lau safe and Lau, in an attempt to destroy all witness and evidence, executed his comrade, leaving no trace of his past identity and role within the triad.
In 2006 Martin Scorsese made The Departed which is based on Infernal Affairs. The story parallels the original but the context of the film is set in South Boston, and instead of the triad, the organized crime ring is of Irish descent.
From a production perspective, the two movies are supported by a star-studded cast. Infernal Affairs had Hong Kong’s two biggest stars: Andy Lau and Tony Leung as the antagonist and the protagonist. The Departed had Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Matt Damon. The quality of the productions was AAA in the realm of their respective continent. The directors of both films are also highly respected in their countries, and their similarities and differences brought a distinct flair to their films. Martin Scorsese is well known in addressing themes of cultural identity, guilt and redemption, crime and conflicts in his films. Andrew Lau also had a history of similar themes in his previous films. Both also have religious influence in their background with Catholicism. Both films frame itself around a religion context: Infernal Affairs’ prologue is a verse from the Nirvana Sutra, v.19:
‘The worst of the Eight Hells is called Continuous Hell. It has the meaning of Continuous Suffering, thus the name.’
The title of The Departed came from the funeral of the protagonist’s mother in which the quote: Heaven holds the faithful departed, was printed in the bulletin. In many ways the two films complement each other in its message: Those living who are torn between good and evil are likened to life in continuous suffering while those who hold firmly to their moral core depart this life for the better. In this light, the death of the undercover officer at the end of the movie can be view as a victory and rest rather than the failure of justice. The mole who must live with his sins must continue to live in fear and guilt: There are no redemption and forgiveness that can be offered to him thereafter. Justice is portrayed as more than what this life can offer, but it’s implied in light of eternity. Religion and its institutions certainly play a huge role in both films: there’s an underlying reference throughout the story and its setting that creates tensions between Buddhism, Christianity, and the law. In Infernal Affairs, the film begins in a Buddhist temple with the initiations of the triad recruits, and yet the triad boss’s office is designed like a church sanctuary with vaulted ceilings. The police, on the other hand, have no religious context, it is untainted and clinical: justice is its true religion. The cultural portrayal of justice and law enforcement in the two films are also of difference. While the Hong Kong police force is disciplined and respected, the Boston police are portrayed as out of control and raw characters who happens to carry a gun. It is this difference in implicit vs. explicit that truly sets both films apart. The directors of both films chose to play out the tension of the characters in their respective cultural contexts. In Scorsese’s story, his characters are loud, offensive, and raw: In a scene where the undercover recruit was being interviewed by the police captain and his protege, the viewers are submitted to a mouth lashing by the protege as he disgrace and speak down on the recruit’s abilities, family, and future. The tension was explicit, and one can easily feel the pain and anger of the recruit. In Andrew Lau’s version, conversations and tension are created through the absence of words and minimum body movement. The audience is left to dig deep as to what each person thinks which creates frustration and tension that facilitate the building up of the story. This difference in facework can be a cultural obstacle to a non-localized audience. My wife, who is a Canadian-born-Chinese, had found the Hong Kong version of the film slow and lacking in ‘good’ acting. Her reasoning was the often silent and hard-to-read facework of the actors, on the other hand, The Departed was easily relatable, and every pain and pressure was explicitly expressed by Academy-award actors. What she was explaining is consistent with the “lower frequency, intensity, and duration of affect displays” of the Chinese culture. The pace of the movies also contributed to the receptiveness of the audience. Even though Infernal Affairs was only 1 hour and 42 minutes versus The Departed 2 hours and 32 minutes, the pacing of Infernal Affairs was much slower compared to The Departed. The cinematography is less frantic and rushed: each scene is slower and wider to give space for the tension, while The Departed was tighter and more abrupt. The experience is likened to either surviving in the open sea or floating down an angry white water rapid.
Romantic and spousal relationships were also treated differently in the two films. In the Hong Kong version of the film, love is portrayed by laughter and trust, but in the Hollywood version, sexual encounter/dialogue denotes the tension within the relationships between the two opposing characters and their love interest. While Asian films do not shy away from intimate portrayals, but for sure less than its Hollywood counterpart, the subtlety of romantic relationships helps the film to highlight the primary tension in the story, that of the antagonist and protagonist. All other relationships are clearly written to support and control this tension. In a sense, for Lau and Mak, sex was irrelevant and unnecessary in their story, and it was best left out so to not distract the audience from the conflict and identity of the characters. The differences of love and romance between the two film go further than its portrayal, Scorsese went further as he rewrote the character’s love interest. In his version of the film, the two characters are in love with the psychologist, while in the Chinese version, Lau had a fiancee who is an author who happens to be writing a story about a character with multiple personalities, and Chan who met the psychologist because of his needs for therapy. We can only guess as to Scorsese’s reasoning in rewriting the relationships, but I believe the difference in cultural context does play a huge role in his rationale. In N.America, sexuality is expressed openly and is considered one of the primary contributors to a person’s identity. Furthermore, scenes of physical intimacy are often used to drive a narrative forward and keep the audience engaged. Is it excessive? I believe different cultural audiences will respond differently to vastly different reasons.
An interesting question that must be asked is how does each version of the story understand forgiveness and justice? In Lau and Mak’s direction of the story, Lau, after being confronted by Chan of his true identity, begged to be forgiven and to be given a chance for a new start. His plea goes unheard as Chan was determined to see justice served, but why such unyielding determination? Throughout the film, the relationship between Chan and his handler was carefully crafted as a paternal relationship, and when Chan’s handler was killed; thrown off a building and landing behind Chan, his pain and grieve became a driving force for his search for justice. He had lost a family member, and vengeance must be exact. In Chinese culture, especially in small businesses and blue-collar work, there is a higher degree of loyalty and ingroups. To treat someone who is your coworker, employer, or teacher as part of your family is normative while in western culture there is a higher premium on individuality and autonomy. In Scorsese’s film, he cast Martin Sheen as the captain, and while he has an aura of a fatherly figure, there was no development and care in developing such a relationship. The death of the captain did not give a sense of paternal loss, but only that of violence and self-preservation: one of two people who know the undercover officer’s true identity is dead, and he may lose his true identity, or the restoration of his identity if the mole is not found.
The funeral of the undercover officer is a social episode portrayed more similarly than one would expect from two different ethnic cultures. What brought the two portrayals together is due to the overriding organizational culture of western and European law enforcement. The Hong Kong police force is heavily influenced and developed by the British. Thus their procedures, in this case, the funeral of an officer, are honoured in a similar western tradition.
As a Hong Kong-born Canadian Chinese, my preference is for the original film directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. The implicit tension in the acting and direction is a style I appreciate and enjoy. Also, the culture influence this film has on the Hong Kong culture is long-lasting: Many Hong Kong movies and TV dramas attempted to follow a similar vein, and the Chinese title of the film is commonly used as a slang/adjective for a double agent. For those unfamiliar with modern-day Hong Kong culture, Infernal Affairs provides insights on criminal culture, non-verbal expressions of Hong Kongers, and what locals consider a successful film. When watched with The Departed, viewers can learn the many polar differences in how the two cultures interact with topics like identity, relationships, and conflicts. Furthermore, when one step into the director’s’ shoes, we can analyze techniques and directions that may be of cultural influence. If both films are highly rated by their respective cultures, then they must say something relevant about its people and identity.