As I am searching through YouTube looking for a free clip of Infernal Affairs (hoping that the piracy police don’t get me) the task of finding one with English subtitles is to my surprise a little harder than first thought. After a couple of minutes, I do manage to find what I am looking for. A minute or so into the first scene, I am already making comparison to its American cousin – The Departed, released four years later in time for Martin Scorsese to snatch up an Oscar before anyone noticed the resemblance. Before you raise your fists and shout ‘American imperialism’, let me tell you that the case of Infernal Affairs and The Departed is a little more complicated than just America ripping off ‘Asian’ content.
As I am watching, the expression “art imitates art” ticks over in my mind. There really isn’t an ‘original’ idea. Aside from the fact that The Departed is actually a legitimate remake, a case could be made that Infernal Affairs isn’t really that original either. The premise of the film – a cop goes undercover while a criminal pretends to be a cop is really nothing new. Such themes have been the subject of many other ‘gangster’ films. To make things even more complicated, the directors of Infernal Affairs have teamed up with Martin Scorsese in an Asian-American co-production – ‘Revenge of the Green Dragons’ (Grettel, O 2014, p1). Clearly, there is a symbiotic relationship between Asian and ‘western’ production houses where material is constantly being ‘borrowed’ and ‘reused’.
But what exactly makes Infernal Affairs Asian? According to Teo (2013), a film could be considered ‘Asian’ on the basis that we “recognise the presence of Asians, the geophysical locations of Asian cities, its countryside, plains, jungles and deserts” (p219). In the case of Infernal Affairs, the fact that it references Mahayana Buddhism – a dominant religion in Hong Kong, filmed on location in Hong Kong and that it was produced entirely by an Asian production house – ‘Media Asia Films’, one could argue that these elements constitute the film as being exclusively ‘Asian’.
After watching the film, I found two scenes which contained elements that cannot be anchored to a particular nationality or culture. The first; after Triad boss Hon Sam finishes his speech, he gives each of his apprentices some unknown drink and says ‘bottoms up’ before consuming its contents. It is a universal expression – no matter what language it is communicated in people understand its meaning. Second; good cop (Chan Wing Yan) is asked by a detective “what do you think of me?”. Chan Wing Yan replies “sorry, I’m not sure sir. But I know you’re in a hurry today, coz your socks don’t match”. The detective looks down at his shoes clearly annoyed, while his colleague; a police recruitment officer laughs. After Chan Wing Yan leaves the room, the recruitment officer says; “you owe me $500…I told you he would make the best undercover cop”. For whatever reason I found this to be amusing, indicating that despite perceived language and cultural barriers, I understood the nuisances between certain characters because of their transnational quality. One solid conclusion that we can draw from both films is that; they are caught up in a rich tapestry of cultural exchanges and interconnectedness.
Teo, S 2013, The Asian cinema experience: styles, spaces, theory, Routledge, New York, viewed 12 August 2014, Summons.
Grettel, O 2014, ‘Martin Scorsese-backed Green Dragons to get VOD-first release’, LA Times, 13 August, viewed 25 August 2014, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-martin-scorsese-revenge-of-the-green-dragons-release-date-20140813-story.html