Two Versions, Two Myths
Last weekend I went to rent the video, The Departed, the movie I really wanted to watch but I was half afraid of watching it. Why? I was afraid that it would disappoint me. The Departed is a remake of an acclaimed Hong Kong movie called Infernal Affairs. I saw that original version before, and I really liked it. It was a great hit in most Asian countries, so I was curious about how the same story would be translated in a foreign country. Although it boasted Martin Scorsese the best director of Oscar awards, I saw many audiences’ from Asia discuss the film on the internet and say they like the original one better. On the other hand, most reviews from Americans recommend this film. What’s the difference? When I watched it, I tried to spot the difference between these two versions and thought about how a myth in movies works different ways in different cultures.
The plotline is quite simple: Billy Costigan is assigned to infiltrate the mob syndicate under chief Costello. Colin Sullivan is a young criminal who has infiltrated the police department as an insider for the syndicate. These two undercovers try to find evidences to catch the moles hidden inside the opposite group. For them, life is such a journey of struggle because no one really knows who they are and they are at odds with their identities they have. Linda Seger writes in her article, “Creating the Myth,” that “Many movies contain a shadow figure. This is a character who is the opposite of the hero” (323). In this film, the two characters represent the opposite of each other. Colin is the shadow figure of Billy, but this counterfeit cop has a normal life and stands on his dignity that Billy wants.
In the original version, the film’s title Infernal Affairs comes from Buddhism. It means that people’s souls suffer the continual never ending torturous path in hell after they die. In Hong Kong’s version, the undercover plan from the mob doesn’t die in the end. Colin wants to be a good guy, so he has to kill many people on his way to be “good”. Those who block his way or know his background have to be cleaned up. Even though he didn’t kill any good cops by himself, they all die because of him. He gets his victory but loses his girlfriend. Therefore, the concept of infernal affairs is shown that he will suffer from feeling guilty for the rest of his life and this affliction is like living in hell.
When I first watch this film, I was shocked in the end. I think that most people who have seen this film have the same feeling. We all get used to expecting that evil will be killed; people often seek hopes in movies they watch because the real world doesn’t always fulfill what we expect. The victory for justice is always the right solution for a story talking about heroes and villains. It gave me a new way of thinking about justices, so that’s one of the reasons why I like this film so much. Who says the one alive will be living happily ever after, and one who died is always the loser? The line between good and bad is blurry. A person won’t be absolutely good or bad. Human nature always has many grey areas. Often time we try to be good, but sometimes our sins will come out.
The Departed doesn’t focus on how much Colin, the criminal who's undercover in the police force, will be condemned by his conscience. Actually, I don’t think that Colin has any regret or guilty feeling about what he does as an undercover. He only wants to protect his identity as a cop. It’s an archetype war between the good and bad, and the hero myth is always in Hollywood. As Linda Seger states in her essay, “A myth includes certain characters that we see in many stories. These characters are called archetypes. They can be thought of as the original “pattern” or “character type” that will be found on the hero’s journey” (323). There are only two kinds of people we’ll see in these kinds of films, white or black, good or bad, hero or villain. The line is always very clear. If the hero died, the villain won’t be alive. There is a price to pay for what the bad guy’s done.
Another thing that got my attention when I saw The Departed is the ending scene. The whole messy, cheesy, spooky killing scene in the last 15 to 20 minutes seems like dark humor to me. I know it’s a tragedy there, but the barbarous acts don’t give me too much time to pity Billy (play by Leonardo DiCaprio). No one will doubt that there will be many scenes of violence and bloodletting in a movie describing cops against gangsters. In fact, both the Hollywood version and the Asian version resorts to violence, but The Departed uses violence in an extremely, direct way in front of the audiences. Almost all of the people die with a single gunshot going through their heads in the end. Their blood and plasma spread out on the wall or the ground and their bodies blown up upon the screen.
Do the audiences really need to see this kind of bloody and bodily damages, and why do these direct violent scenes make me deeply shocked? In the article, “The Postmorbid Condition,” Vivion C. Sobchack claims that today’s violence on screen is senseless and is not related to moral context. Sobchack compared today’s violence by watching earlier violent films. As a viewer, I’ve seen the violence in movies all the time and get used to the gratuitous violence. However, I think that the ending part in The Departed doesn’t belong to the two categories Sobchack points out. Though it is careless killing, the killing really means something to its audiences. It’s the only justices that we can get by accepting the crazy violence like this.
On the other hand, in Infernal Affairs, the audience can feel the strong emotion of the tragedy toward the end. It has less violence and focus more on the interactions and intense psychological analysis of the undercover agents. The only fair way to think about justice in Infernal Affairs is the continuing pain of guilt in the bad guy’s mind.
The different meaning of punishment in western and eastern societies brings the different ways of the hero myth. In western, the punishment focus on the physical part. The biggest punishment is death; thus, even though the hero dies, he is still the winner because the evil also dies. In eastern society, the torture in one’s spirit is more serious than any other penalty that one could suffer from; therefore, the bad guy’s body is alive, but his soul will be in pain. People’s different perspectives on tragedy in western and Asia led to different violent scenes in different versions. In western, such a tragedy can use dark humor to make fun of it, but in Asia, people accept the tragedy as it is. No fun, no joke.
On the way to returning the video back, I was thinking about the storyline of The Departed. I thought that the main reason that people in Asia don’t like this version because the different backgrounds cause different aspects of seeing a tragic hero and the punishment. And I’ve never thought this before writing this essay. It’s more complicated than give a thumb up or thumb down to a movie as an audience. Often times we just ignore them because they seem too complicated, but they sure impact our way of thinking.
Seger Linda. “Creating the Myth.” Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Eds. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomn. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2006. 317-326.
Sobckhack Vivion C. “The Postmorbid Condition.” Singns of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Eds. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford;St. Martin’s 2006. 372-377.