Infernal Affairs

Hong Kong's Most Popular Gangster Film

The success of Infernal Affairs, which earned $7 million (in U.S. dollars) by the end of its theatrical run, led to a resurgence of popularity of the gangster genre in Hong Kong film, especially for undercover agent films. These included Flash Point (2007), Undercover (2007), and On the Edge (2006). However, none of these films were as successful as Infernal Affairs, which, curiously enough, ended up benefiting an American production more than it did Hong Kong cinema. While director Martin Scorsese’s The Departed cost almost $90 million to produce, it earned more than $289 million internationally, and won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. By standard critical and commercial measurements, The Departed was a more successful film than Infernal Affairs, but judging by Alan Mak’s own words, the co-director of the original version of the story kept a sour disposition towards the remake, and not simply because of jealousy.

Alan Mak and Martin Scorsese

Film Disagreements

Although Mak said he was initially happy with the prospect of Scorsese reimagining his film, he was ultimately disappointed with the results. “I'm a fan of Scorsese,” he said in an interview. “When I was younger, I watched Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Casino. That's why I'm disappointed. I thought Scorsese would make a different movie. I understand they really liked Infernal Affairs. But, for me, if I take a story from somewhere, I'll take only the soul of the story.” Although he said he understood why Scorsese won Best Director, he was nonplussed that The Departed won Best Picture. “That's a little bit incredible. Is it impolite to say that?” The Infernal Affairs co-director’s opinion was that The Departed “stuck so close to the original it looked like they are just making Infernal Affairs again.”[1]

Mak also had concerns about cultural disrespect, as the announcer during the Academy Awards ceremony stated that The Departed was a remake of a Japanese movie. “It's such a big joke! How can that happen? Nobody checked?” And when he found out that Variety magazine mislabelled Infernal Affairs a Korean film, Mak declared that it seemed like Americans could not tell East Asian countries apart from one another. And while that statement is slightly hyperbolic, it is true that Scorsese and his director of photography, Michael Ballhaus, ASC, at least conflated Hong Kong, Korean, and Japanese films into a catch-all category of “Asian cinema” in determining the influences they intended to use for The Departed.

The Cinematic Style of The Departed

Lifting From Asian and American Sources

As recounted in American Cinematographer magazine, Scorsese asked Ballhaus to study Korean films like Oldboy (directed by Park Chan-wook, released in 2003) and Bad Guy (directed by Kim Ki-duk, released in 2001). Ballhaus states, “By asking me to watch those wild Asian movies, I think Marty was pushing me to try something different. I tried to do that, but after a couple of days on the shoot I realized that although the styles of those movies were great for the particular stories they were telling, we were doing an American movie with American stars. In the end, I had to pull back a bit from those wilder styles; I couldn’t go that far with this movie.”[2] Ironically, as the filmmakers behind Infernal Affairs had tried to create a film more in line with the sensibilities of American cinema, the American filmmakers remaking Infernal Affairs, at least initially, tried to draw more inspiration from the “wilder styles” of Eastern cinema. And some of those elements do make it into the finished film, including visual techniques prevalent in Hong Kong action cinema. These include dramatic zoom shots on stars Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg when their characters engage in verbal sparring early in The Departed, and several freeze frame shots during the climactic action sequence at the shipping yards, a technique often used by Woo in his action films.

But these examples represent minor concessions to the cinematic style of Hong Kong, and in the end Ballhaus and Scorsese decided to stick with a more traditional American approach to big-budget filmmaking. Most likely, this was done out of concern that an excessively stylistic approach to the material would limit The Departed’s critical and commercial appeal. And some of Ballhaus’ comments regarding Infernal Affairs indicate that despite its strong critical reception and the filmmaker’s intentions to more directly mimic American cinema techniques, the original is not completely interchangeable with an American production. “Marty’s version is much more character-driven, whereas the Chinese version, while very good, doesn’t have that same depth...[I]t’s also primarily action-driven. Ours also has a lot of action, but we took a more American approach to the material.”[2] Ballhaus’ comments about Infernal Affairs are at odds with the general critical opinion of it as a character-driven film, and it would have been helpful if the cinematographer had provided more specific reasons to support his criticisms.

Original Trailer for The Departed

Hong Kong, Gangsters, And Films

Infernal Influences

Despite whatever misgivings that Mak may have, today, both Infernal Affairs and The Departed stand as masterpieces in the genre of gangster films, and more specifically the subgenre of undercover agent movies. And while The Departed may draw heavy influences from Asian cinema in its retelling of the originally Hong Kong story, Infernal Affairs is not without its own use of cinematic influences. To read more about the history of gangster films in China and particularly Hong Kong leading up to the release of Alan Mak's films, be sure to check out this article on "The Rise of the Undercover Agent Film in Hong Kong Cinema." In addition, for a more in-depth analysis of just the themes and motifs used in Infernal Affairs, take a look at "Anxiety and Identity in the Infernal Affairs Trilogy."

And of course, if you have yet to do so, watch each movie, American and Chinese, for yourself, and come to your own conclusion about which film is a better expression of the gangster film genre.