Of affairs and hockey clubs infernal

Sunday, 8 October 2006 — 12:50am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews

So while I was watching Calgary’s victorious home opener tonight, a few conveniently placed intermissions and commercial breaks permitted me to regale the resident kid brother with storied knickknacks of the franchise’s history.

The exercise demonstrated, once again, that one of the best ways to notice new things about a story is to tell it. Here’s tonight’s curiosity: isn’t it odd that at the team’s inception, they christened it the Atlanta Flames? Were they proud of Union soldiers burning their city to the ground – or did they, frankly, not give a damn?

[Edit: According to these guys, that was a very good guess.]

Insert clever transition here.

It’s a strange experience to watch a cinematic remake immediately after the original film. It is not unlike reading a book right before you see its adaptation. When it comes to books, I know that for some people, it’s hardly ever a pleasant experience: they get all worked up about adaptation issues and never manage to get over them. For me, there is usually something unsettling that results from how the absences and changes are just as visible as what actually ends up on the screen, but this is typically outweighed by my attention to the use of film language in negotiating the inevitable gulfs. See my piece on The Phantom of the Opera for details.

Remakes, however, are a different matter. I think we often have a tendency to think of them as “new versions” of a story rather than “adaptations” in the same sense as books and stage plays. Gus Van Sant’s Psycho aside, our expectations typically extend as far as a reimagining of the holistic story and characters, and not shot-for-shot, plot-for-plot replication.

So it’s delightful when Naomi Watts steals an apple and Adrien Brody carries her down a vine in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and it’s especially entertaining to us film nerds when the original film is hypodiegetically embedded in Jack Black’s film shoot on the ship; and then there’s the spider sequence, which is (oddly enough) a homage to a scene explicitly not in the original; but we see these as luxuries, and we could have done without them just the same.

That brings us to this weekend’s big release, The Departed.

A brief primer for those of you who don’t keep up with such things, and expect me to do it for you: Scorsese’s latest film is a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong cop thriller, Infernal Affairs, which quickly became Hong Kong cinema’s biggest phenomenon this decade not involving the farcical antics of Stephen Chow. The premise is deceptively simple: a police spy embedded in a triad (Tony Leung or, if you prefer, Leonardo DiCaprio) and a triad spy embedded in the police department (Andy Lau or, if you prefer, Matt Damon) attempt to fish each other out in a meticulous demonstration of what game theorists refer to as a simultaneous game of incomplete information.

If you haven’t seen Infernal Affairs, I highly recommend that you do. I revisited it last night, heeding a warning from a fellow film buff that it doesn’t hold up as well on a second viewing, only to discover that – while the shock value is gone, and there are two or three leaps of logic that arguably qualify as plot holes – the film is every bit as intricate as I remembered on the levels of direction, editing, performance and general craftsmanship.

A wise choice, then, for Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan to adhere very, very closely to the sequence of actions in the original. Sure, the locales and actors are different, a few supporting characters are split and merged, and I’m told there are elements from the two sequels that emerged within a year of the original’s release. (Mark Wahlberg’s character is allegedly grafted from Infernal Affairs III.) I don’t want to spoil anything, but stack one film atop the other, and they mesh in an alignment I’d even call homomorphic.

But because the two films are so similar, and differ primarily in execution, I do feel compelled to compare them. I think my renewed familiarity with Infernal Affairs tempered my enjoyment of The Departed somewhat, and I suspect the latter deserves a second chance on a clean slate. I highly recommend them both, but neither one is free of imperfections. In that sense, I almost find that one complements the other.

Here’s what The Departed does better: onscreen violence, cinematography, verbal humour, the exchange of contraband, Jack Nicholson, clever visual motifs (I’m thinking of the final shot in particular), the budget, Catholicism, spoonfeeding the audience every step of the way to flesh out the motivations so nobody is left questioning why X knows/trusts/kills Y.

Here’s what Infernal Affairs does better: offscreen violence, editing, pacing of the opening act, sting operations, Morse Code, Buddhism, not spoonfeeding the audience every step of the way to beat it over the head with clues and motivations until it resonates with the guest appearance of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”.

Draw: stellar lead performances, use of cellular telephones, plot holes.

On balance, I prefer the original. I’ll concede that it is sometimes too subtle for its own good, just as The Departed is a bit heavy-handed when it comes to trying to explain everything (and still falling short in completely new ways). It doesn’t wave clues in your face like its American sibling, but it does indulge in the occasional redundant flashback to slap you twice with a revelation after it has been made. The two films tell the story from opposite directions, and different problems surface.

What The Departed doesn’t preserve about Infernal Affairs is its acute sense of perspective.

One of the core principles of film language is that while the audience is receiving visual data in a blinking rectangle, that does not mean films inherently work in a third-person objective point of view. Framing, blocking, the sequential ordering and timing of reaction shots – all of these elements contribute to a sense of omniscience and empathy, leading us inside a character’s point of view even as we see her face. Hitchcock played with this to no end. Hell, Scorsese plays with this to no end… just not up to his usual standard here.

It’s almost certainly an editing issue. There’s a big moment in both films that I won’t spoil, but it involves, er, gravity. In Infernal Affairs, it happens behind Tony Leung as he walks towards the camera, and it’s as much a punch in the gut for us as it is for him. (It says something that it still worked the second time through the film, even though I saw it coming.) In The Departed, the audience sees what happens long before Leonardo DiCaprio’s character; the eye level contributes to this, too. Something about it just doesn’t work: the timing and cutting feel off.

The Departed consistently opts for the visceral over what makes the most sense, perspectivally speaking. Mind you, Scorsese is still a master of the visceral; but that doesn’t always fit, especially in a film built on a concept that is all about the limited perspectives of the main characters progressing in blind, meandering baby steps.

Watch them both, though. I can’t think of a better exercise to teach yourself about the differing conventions and values of Hong Kong and American cinema, even if you presume that you’re already familiar with one or the other.

(The likely scenario is that you’ll only manage to see The Departed, which is playing in “theatres everywhere”, while Infernal Affairs is not. In that case, enjoy the element of surprise. I think that may have been missing in my experience, as there is very little in the Gotcha Department that Infernal Affairs doesn’t already do.)

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