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Comparing 'Infernal Affairs' and its remake, 'The Departed'

For all the astonishing pieces of cinema that director Martin Scorsese has created, from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull, many believe it incredulous that the only film that has been recognised with an Academy Award is 2006s The Departed. By no means a bad piece of cinema, Scorsese’s film was criticised for its overindulgence of violence, a sharp difference from the original movie, Infernal Affairs, on which The Departed is based.

It was back in January 2003 when Warner Bros producer Brad Grey and actor Brad Pitt bought the rights to remake the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs from Media Asia for little more than $1 million. Soon, the film began filling with industry talent, starting with Martin Scorsese in the director’s chair, followed by a cast list that included Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Jack Nicholson and Martin Sheen.

The film itself features a game of cat and mouse between an undercover cop and a mole within the police that attempt to identify each other whilst infiltrating a deadly Irish gang in Boston. The Departed shares almost the exact same plot as Infernal Affairs, though, in style, the two films couldn’t be more different.

Featuring a frenetic, intense energy akin to many other Hong Kong action films, Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, is part melodrama and part stylised action flick, often switching from monochrome to colour throughout the film. Lau and Mak’s film is largely one about fate, focusing on how the two lead characters ended up in their position, as well as how similar they both are. 

Focusing more on plot and character, Scorsese does away with the flashy style of the original film, grounding the story in a more gritty reality that prefers to spend time analysing the bravado and social impact of the gang itself. Scorsese’s characters are products of their social environment, born either into success or difficulty, in which an individual’s parents and their neighbourhood can sculpt them. Scorsese frames the story as if his characters are mice, stuck in the labyrinth caught in the elaborate web of the winding streets and towering buildings of the city. 

This subtext simply does not exist in Lau and Mak’s film that comes across more like a throwaway action film than it makes an artistic attempt at high-end cinema. This is no bad thing, as in itself, Infernal Affairs is an excellent demonstration of Hong Kong action at its finest, leaving Martin Scorsese’s 2006 classic to flourish as something entirely different altogether. 

From Spike Lee’s Oldboy to Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell, American cinema has seen its fair share of sub-standard remakes. However, The Departed is certainly not one of them, putting enough distance between itself and its Hong Kong original to be regarded as unique. This didn’t stop co-director of Infernal Affairs, Andrew Lau report to Apple Daily that, “Of course I think the version I made is better, but the Hollywood version is pretty good too. [Scorsese] made the Hollywood version more attuned to American culture,” however. 

However, in essence, this is precisely why remakes are made, translating another culture’s story for your national audience. Whilst, in a perfect world, audiences would just watch the original film, The Departed is a testament to the fact that remakes can work.