Treachery, Double-Dealings and Death - Two mob movies clash
The idea of robbing from the rich to give to the needy suggests a kind of moral thievery, but while the "crime" may be hidden beneath the guise of social justice and redistribution of wealth, those who partake remain criminals, and when they group together-be they the Merry Men, the Mafia, or the Mob-they represent organized crime, whatever their motivations. In es-sence, Robin Hood was just another Mob boss, an ethical Al Capone so to speak. Spanning the globe from the Yakuza in Japan, the Triads in China, and the Mafias in Russia and Sicily and around the world, to the Irish Mob, the gangs of New York and Los Angeles, and the drug cartels of Colombia and Mexico, "crime of the organized kind has a long if not necessarily noble heritage." The film heritage of organized crime is similarly extensive-The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Untouchables, etc. With The Departed, Martin Scorsese adapts Infernal Affairs, a film from Hong Kong directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, to an American setting. The two films tell the same story-a mole in the police department and a cop undercover in the local crime syndicate (respectively the Irish Mob in South Boston and the Tri-ads in Hong Kong) tasked with hunting each other down-yet each is infused with the traditions of the different cultures they depict. Despite taking place on opposite sides of the world, Infernal Affairs and The Departed reflect a number of common underlying themes-religion, corruption, and identity among them-that surface within the films' distant but not dissimilar cultural settings.
The role played by the criminal organizations depicted is central to the understanding of the cultural contexts that surround each film. Infernal Affairs opens at a Buddhist temple in Hong Kong where a young Lau Kin-Ming (future Inspector Lau) and several other Triad re-cruits are assigned by Triad boss Hon Sam to enter the police academy and infiltrate Hong Kong's police force. Sam's gang, however, represents only a small arm of a much larger, global crime syndicate. Origin stories suggest that the Triads first appeared in China under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) with the purpose of overthrowing the government and restoring the Ming Dynasty to power. Chinese revolutionary and political leader Sun Yat-Sen is thought to have had ties to the Triads both before and after the downfall of the Qing. Post-Qing, the purposes of the Triads realigned, and while some groups turned to legitimate enterprises, many resorted to vari-ous criminal activities. Beginning with the Communist takeover of China in 1949, Hong Kong has become the world capital of Triad activity, with an estimated fifty different groups and eigh-ty-thousand members. (Prior to Hong Kong's Organized & Serious Crimes Ordinance in 1994, the Triads were in fact heavily involved in the film industry of the region.) The gang depicted in Infernal Affairs epitomizes a smaller branch of one of these groups-boasting Triad af-filiation and resources but operating largely independent of any overarching structural hierarchy. Their ambitions match their size-world domination or political schemes are less of a concern to them than their simple, day to day narcotics smuggling. Directors Lau and Mak's decision to focus on the Triads' participation in drug trafficking reflects the prevalence of it in Hong Kong. They also suggest Hong Kong's place in the international market through the Triad's interaction with Thai dealers, who represent a dominant force in the Southeast Asian drug trade.
With The Departed, Scorsese focuses instead on the Irish Mob in South Boston which is perhaps less openly active now than in the past, but whose presence dates back to the Prohibition era. The film's Frank Costello character (the counterpart to Sam in Infernal Af-fairs) reflects traits of former Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger, a mobster and FBI infor-mant during the seventies, eighties, and into the nineties (currently at large and among the world's most wanted criminals). With this as its foundation, The Departed makes a number of minor but important departures from Infernal Affairs. First, linked to the na-ture of organized crime in Boston-which grew out of ethnic communities-family loyalties and connections play a central role for the film's main characters, Colin Sullivan (the mob mole) and Billy Costigan (the undercover cop). Sullivan, raised by his grandmother, was taken under Cos-tello's wing and regards him as a father figure. Costigan, born into a family of mobsters, worked his way into Costello's gang aided by family connections and reputations. With Infernal Af-fairs, Inspector Lau and Chan Wing Yan (Costigan's counterpart) lack these kinds of fa-milial ties, reflecting the looser construction of the Triads and making the two men's involvement with the group seem less personal. Scorsese also presents a gang that prescribes to loftier ambitions-like selling stolen weapons processors to the highest bidder-a decision that he per-haps calculated to play into prevalent fears of an American audience. The differences between these two criminal organizations and the cultures they arise from provide the foundations for most of the variations that occur between the two films.
Religion, for example, represents a significant theme in both films, but it manifests in dif-ferent ways. Infernal Affairs establishes a religious framework from the outset. It opens with a quotation from the Buddhist text the Nirvana Sutra. "The worst of all hells is called Con-tinuous Hell," it says. "It has the meaning of continuous suffering. Thus the name." This estab-lishes the mindset of the two central characters as they are forced live their lives denying their identity. It becomes even more significant for Inspector Lau as the film ends and the idea is reite-rated: "Says the Buddha: He who is in continuous hell never dies. Longevity is a big hardship in continuous hell." While Lau ultimately frees himself from Sam's power (by killing him), the film suggests that his regret for the path his life has taken and for the consequences that have come from his secrecy and deception-Yan's death, his girlfriend's denunciation of him-haunts him continually. Reminders of this religious theme are perpetuated throughout the film in the Budd-hist temple that Sam and his followers frequent-at the beginning of the film, Sam claims to have been saved by Buddha, implying at least somewhat of a religious motivation behind his ac-tions. With The Departed, the religious theme is more pervasive, significant as an integral part of the Irish American culture. In his opening narration, Costello says, "Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying we had each other," suggesting an element of re-ligion in the unity of Boston's Irish community. As a youth, Sullivan is depicted as an altar boy, Costigan and others wear crosses, Captain Queenan's son goes to Notre Dame-all references to the Irish Catholic tradition. At the same time though, a perversion of the tradition peeks through in references to church scandals-a suggestive conversation with a priest and two nuns, a com-ment about a priest uncle of Costigan's being married to a little boy in Indonesia, etc.. While evocative of these regions' different cultures, religious themes also provide target audiences with a common ground-an access point to understanding characters' situations.
Variations in the films also arise as a result of simple "East/West" cultural differences. Perhaps fueled by the desires of a bloodthirsty "western" audience, The Departed ramps up the amount of blood and graphic violence significantly, including Costigan's brutal beating of the men from Providence and an ending that adds three more to the body count over Infernal Affairs-Costello's lieutenant, French, with a graphic suicide (Costello himself is riddled with bullets compared to the one that takes down Sam); an extra policeman at the elevator scene; and Colin Sullivan in a key shift from the original. Infernal Affairs leaves Inspector Lau free but conflicted, having had a change of heart, to suffer the consequences of his actions and Yan dead, having failed to bring Lau to justice-a cerebral, thought provoking ending. With The Departed, Sullivan is murdered, appeasing audiences' appetites for justice and re-venge-a visceral, more satisfying ending, and one more evocative of the Hollywood tradition. Similarly, the three female characters in Infernal Affairs are lumped together into a single character in The Departed, creating a love triangle and providing the potential for more intense drama.
The movie theater sequences-where the gang members' information is traded off-offer another glimpse at this variation between "East" and "West". In The Departed, Costello and Sullivan meet in a pornographic theater, suggestive of American decadence and a defining trait of the US image abroad. Lau and Sam, however, meet in an ordinary theater that is showing a film made in the Chinese tradition-one redolent of Zhang Yimou's films. As Lau departs the theater with Yan in pursuit, posters for Men in Black II and K-19: The Widowmaker can be seen, suggesting the capitalist nature of Hong Kong's economy-an idea put forth in an earlier scene where Yan sells Lau a high tech speaker system, and reinforced at various points throughout the film.
The Departed and Infernal Affairs offer culturally specific takes on the same story, noticeable in both these obvious differences as well as in the minor details-the watch Yan receives as a gift from S.P. Wong for example. A Chinese superstition states that giving someone a watch is a bad omen, as it represents death-this scene would thus hold more significance for a Chinese audience than an American one. Also in Infernal Affairs, the fourth floors on the elevators are all "missing," signifying another Chinese superstition that the number four is bad luck (the Chinese word for "four" sounds similar to the Chinese word for "death"). Both films are largely informed by the circumstances and cultures that surround their making.
Sullivan, Robert, ed. Mobsters and Gangsters: Organized Crime in America, from Al Capone to Tony Soprano. New York: Life Books, 2002
Hays, Jeffrey. "Triads and Organized Crime in China": 2008. http://factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=300&catid=8&subcatid=50 May 5, 2010
Nepstad, Peter. "Triads." The Illuminated Lantern: Revealing the Heart of Asian Cinema: March 15, 2001. http://www.illuminatedlantern.com/cinema/archives/triads.php May 5, 2010.
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