Comparing the Departed and Infernal Affairs

Tan Jing Zhi WRIT 340 Assignment 3 10/30/12 Prof. William Gorski The Departed: A Quintessentially American Story Have film makers today run out of original ideas and ways to artistically express their individuality? With the recent slew of film remakes and adaptations of classics such as King Kong, The Manchurian Candidate, and Ocean’s Eleven, it would appear that the film industry has had to reach into the past to seek inspiration for their new works.
Critics may claim that in the capitalistic, hyper competitive world of film production today, profits take precedence over trying to construct an engaging story line from scratch. After all, remakes and adaptations of film classics guarantee a sense of familiarity and nostalgia with the audience, and seem sure-bets for box office success. However, history reveals that in the world of the arts, some of the most prominent literary and film texts have actually greatly depended on works of the past.
Infernal Affairs, an original 2002 Hong Kong crime-thriller by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, tells the story of a police officer who infiltrates a triad – a Chinese criminal organization, and a triad member working undercover in the police force, with both men trying to expose each other. The film garnered a loyal following and widespread critical acclaim in Asia. When legendary director Martin Scorsese took on the challenge of adapting Infernal Affairs for his 2006 Hollywood epic, The Departed, some wondered if he could still add his unique touch to an already outstanding classic.

As it turned out, The Departed more than held its own as the film received four Oscars at the 79th Academy Awards. Although The Departed faithfully follows the plot of Infernal Affairs, it distinguishes itself from the original by exploring the complexities of morality while critiquing the corrupt public institutions that claim to serve the American citizens. Through Scorsese’s deft use of character development and questioning of traditional notions of ethics, The Departed depicts a world where the line separating good and evil is blurred, and anyone can switch their identities to gain an advantage in society, by fair means or foul.
The Departed distinguishes itself from Infernal Affairs in its challenge to conventional morality. Although The Departed stays remarkably close to the plot of Infernal Affairs, both films are made with different cultural contexts in mind, and paint completely opposing moral universes. Both in the beginning and conclusion of Infernal Affairs, Buddhist teachings allude to the notion that one has to suffer and be punished for wrongdoing. Throughout Infernal Affairs, Yan, the triad member who infiltrates the Hong Kong police force, contemplates turning over a new leaf and leaving his criminal past behind for good.
He has become accustomed to his position in the police force, which is depicted as honorable and respectable in the film. To wipe out his criminal background, Yan kills his triad boss in a police raid. Although Yan is able to start afresh on the good side, he will forever have to live in guilt for his sins. On the other hand, Chan, the undercover police officer in the triad, is shot dead. But unlike Yan, he has lived his life with dignity and officers pay tribute at his funeral for his valuable contributions to the police force.
While Chan is presented as a beacon of incorruptibility, Yan is painted as a conniving and ruthless man, and thus pays for his actions. The mandarin title of Infernal Affairs, translates to a “continuous hell,” where the sinner has to endure endless suffering and face his guilty conscience forever (Brussat n. p. ) In Infernal Affairs, the difference between good and evil is as clear as black and white. While the Hong Kong police force is a symbol of bravery and heroism, the triad is representative of all things sinister and deplorable.
In contrast, The Departed blurs the line between good and evil, and questions if such distinctions ever existed. With its portrayal of deceptive, brutal and double-crossing characters on both sides of the law embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game where everyone is forced to lie to gain an upper hand, The Departed also provides an insight into Scorsese’s critique of America’s war on terror and Iraq in the 2000s. The vivid representation of the characters in The Departed plays a central role in revealing how the protagonists try to break into an amoral world.
In Infernal Affairs, both the undercover gangster and police officer are presented only briefly at the beginning. Rather than focusing on them, the film engages the audience through its brisk storytelling and exploration of the symbiotic relationship between the triads and the police force in Hong Kong. In contrast, much more time is devoted in The Departed to explore the experiences of the protagonists, Billy Costigan, the undercover police officer in the Irish mafia, and Collin Sullivan, the mole working for Frank Costello, the boss of the same criminal organization.
Rather than trying to differentiate the ethical standards of both characters, Scorsese deliberately suggests that in fact, they merely represent two sides of the same coin. Trapped in a vicious struggle with every moment spent in enemy territory, neither man is spared from making morally objectionable judgments to survive. Sullivan is portrayed as one who believes in survival of the fittest, that the people in power have the privilege to control the ones below them. Therefore, to reach the top, he works relentlessly towards personal gains without regard for the consequences.
He continually tries to escape from his south Boston Irish ghetto upbringing and is obsessed with progressing to the affluent Beacon Hill neighborhood. The Massachusetts State House, an imposing building on Beacon Street that Sullivan is captivated by, is a symbol of his thirst to become a figure of authority in an institution that upholds American values. His relationship with his partner, Madolyn, also shows his personal ambition. Rather than being attracted to her personality, he only values her status as a professional, which fits ideally into the image he seeks to depict for himself. Throughout The Departed? e deceives every person he interacts with to get ahead in life: his employers, his partner, Costigan, and even the man who nurtured him from a young age, Costello. Unlike Yan in Infernal Affairs, at no point does Sullivan believe he should repent for his mistakes. He kills Costello, not because he wants to start afresh, but when he discovers that Costello is an FBI informant and had thus double crossed him. Worst of all, he deceives himself when he tries to assume the power to judge the moral fiber of Costigan by recommending him for the Medal of Merit, an action that reeks of hypocrisy.
Compared to Sullivan, Costigan, the police officer working undercover in Costello’s gang, is equally deceitful. Initially, he believes he is misleading no one and is doing something noble for the Massachusetts State Police. But as he ingratiates himself deeper into the underworld world of drugs, sex, and mindless violence, he becomes increasing conflicted and confused. By regularly partaking in brutal beatings and witnessing murders on a regular basis, he finds it unbearable to continue in this self-deception.
Years of undercover work have taken a huge toil on his fragile mental state. It is as if Costello’s crooked world has become intertwined with his. During one of the mafia’s operations, Costigan is forced to shoot a man in his foot to extract information from him. In doing so, he loses his moral compass. Gradually, he is no longer able to identify with being a cop or criminal, because breaking the law has become second nature to him. The only people whom he has been able to be honest with are Sergeant Dignam and Captain Queenam, who both know of his real status as a police officer.
In a heated exchange with Dignam, Costigan yells, “I can’t be someone else every fucking day! ” This outburst exemplifies Costigan’s frustration at trying to avoid the perils of self-deception because he has been living a life of lies for three years. By underlining the transgressions of both Costigan and Sullivan, Scorsese shows that whichever side of the law one is on, morality becomes very murky when survival is the only name of the game. There is no room for taking the moral high ground in such an unforgiving environment.
Scorsese also depicts the erosion of moral authority in law enforcement in a post 9/11 world. The Massachusetts State Police are willing to employ any dishonest tactic to achieve its aim of bringing Costello to justice. In doing so, any moral authority they might have initially had is rendered void. In a particularly poignant scene where the state police is conducting an operation to nab Costello’s mob doing an illegal transaction with the a Chinese triad, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) unit assists the police by putting all cell phones signals in the area under surveillance.
Captain Ellerby, head of the operation, remarks, “Patriot Act, Patriot Act! I love it, I love it, I love it! ” Passed in the weeks following the September 11 attacks, the Patriot Act was designed to enhance federal anti-terrorism investigations and protect American citizens (Jenks n. p. ). Yet by expanding the powers of federal agencies, serious concerns have been raised over its infringement of civil liberties. Ellerby, though, is not concerned in the least by the repercussions the Patriot Act.
To him, the means justify the aim of arresting Costello and his men. The Departed is Scorsese’s vehicle to show that the world we live in today lacks moral codes and principles. All that matters to both sides is gaining a certain kind of advantage, even if it means through the use of unscrupulous methods. Ironically, the characters in The Departed who remain faithful to their moral and just beliefs, such as Captain Queenan, a model of responsibility, honesty and integrity, is mercilessly murdered by Costello’s gangsters. In an interview with The
Guardian in 2006, Director Scorsese explained his motivations for making the film, “…I guess there’s an anger, for want of a better word, about the state of affairs. An anger that hopefully doesn’t eat at yourself but a desire to express what I feel about post-September 11 despair. It came from a very strong state of conviction about the emotional, psychological state that I am in now about the world and about the way our leaders are behaving” (Pilkington n. p. ). The implication of such a strong statement is clear: When President George W.
Bush declared a war on terror and Iraq without United Nations support under the guise of good against evil, it invoked a cycle of reactionary violence that has cause further destruction of lives and unimaginable sufferings. In The Departed, it is not only the self-righteousness of law enforcement establishments in America that Scorsese is trying to tear down, but that of other institutions of authority as well. There are scenes in the film that continually underscore the violence and pretense of the organizations that claim to protect the nation.
In a heated discussion with his psychiatrist, Madolyn, about the respectability of a cop, Costigan loses his cool and shouts in frustration, “There’s no one more full of shit than a cop! ” He adds that most cops join the police force to “bang a nigger’s head against the wall. ” Overt racism also pervades the Massachusetts State Police as Sergeant Dignam references their undercover agents such as Costigan to native Americans, because “…you’re not gonna see them. ” Even Costello’s character, which is based on the real-life Whitley Bulger, a notorious Irish mafia boss, was known to have numerous connections to the Irish Republican Army (Allen n. . ) In one scene, Costello is having lunch when he spots a priest and a nun staring at him with disgust. He approaches them and insults the priest’s faith by referring to the homosexual sodomy that some Catholic priests committed, insinuating that even men of faith are no less flawed than he is. In reality, as in The Departed, the forces for good and evil are so closely interwoven that they appear to be mutually reinforcing and sustaining. The difference between what is right and wrong has become especially ambiguous and virtually impossible to discern.
As Scorsese explained in the interview with The Guardian, “’Good and bad become very blurred…It’s a world where morality doesn’t exist, good doesn’t exist, so you can’t even sin any more as there’s nothing to sin against. There’s no redemption of any kind” ((Pilkington n. p. ). By drawing parallels in The Departed to the ethically questionable actions of people in power, Scorsese provides a social commentary on the current state of the country and suggests that no one can be trusted. Film remakes and adaptations have long been a staple in the film industry.
From a studio’s perspective, remaking a film is sensible because not only will the remake gain instant name recognition, it will also interest a portion of the audience who enjoyed the original, regardless of how the remake turns out. In comparing Infernal Affairs, an original Hong Kong classic, with The Departed, the American remake, there is a stark difference in how the respective directors of the films view morality. In Infernal Affairs, the distinction between good and evil is clear – the police stands for integrity and the triad is a symbol of wickedness.
On the other hand, The Departed gives the audience an overwhelming sense that moral values no longer matter in a world where right and wrong is distorted. Ultimately, through The Departed, director Scorsese aims to express his distrust with the public institutions’ porous claims to protect Americans, as well as his anguish at the political failures of the Bush Administration after the September 11 attacks. By crafting the film from a uniquely American perspective, while tailoring it to the current state of affairs in America, Scorsese’s sophisticated masterpiece is worthy of high praise.
Works Cited Allen, Nick. “James ‘Whitey’ Bulger to admit he was government informer in court. ” The Telegraph. 7 Aug. 2012. Web. 2 Oct. 2012. Brussat, Federic and Mary Ann. “Infernal Affairs. ” Spirituality Practice. n. d. Web. 3 Oct 2012. Jenks, Rosemary. “The USA PATRIOT Act of 2001: A Summary of the Anti-Terrorism Law’s Immigration-Related Provisions. ” Center for Immigration Studies. Dec. 2001. Web. 2 Oct. 2012. Pilkington, Ed. “A History of Violence. ” The Guardian. 5 Oct. 2006. Web. 3 Oct. 2012.

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