Hong Kong action-movie directors have picked up a lot from Martin Scorsese. Think of John Woo in particular: the brotherly criminal-underworld bonding in A Better Tomorrow, the gliding camera moves of The Killer, that endless and amazing tracking shot in Hard Boiled. When you consider that Woo basically invented the melodramatic gun epics that revolutionized Hong Kong action cinema, it’s fair to call Scorsese the Western director with the single greatest impact there over the past 30 or so years, with Leone and Peckinpah as distant runners-up.
So it’s nice that Hong Kong was able to give something back. In 2007, when Scorsese finally won his decades-late Oscar, it was for The Departed, a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs. So maybe, among other things, his long-awaited win was a case of global-cinema symbiosis. Scorsese let himself be influenced by some of the people he’d been influencing for so long, and he walked away with a movie that was commercially inclined, plot-driven, and capable of finally charming the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences after he’d spent so many years failing on just that one goal.
These days, it’s hard for a Westerner to see Infernal Affairs as anything other than a companion piece. The Departed is a better and more important movie in almost every way, and if you have any sort of cable package, you’ve probably seen it at least four times in the past eight years. But on its own terms, the original was a huge deal in Hong Kong. It made a shit-ton of money there, dominated every Asian awards show, and spawned two sequels, both of which came out a year later. And The Departed isn’t its only remake, either; filmmakers in South Korea and Japan and India were clearly inspired, too. For whatever reason, the movie’s central idea—a deeply implausible story about an undercover cop embedded within the mob and an undercover mob functionary embedded within the police, playing cat-and-mouse with each other—has the sort of resonance that crosses cultural barriers. It’s hard to imagine it happening anywhere, but people are still imagining it happening everywhere.
Watching the original, it’s striking just how much of The Departed was already there. The bit where two mob underlings banter with each other, one of them claiming that he knows exactly how to spot an undercover cop, might strike you as Scorsese’s most personal touch, but it turns out he lifted that scene almost verbatim. And his big set pieces—the attempted bust of the drug shipment, the shootout in the parking garage, the moment where the two undercover opponents finally confront each other on a rooftop—are all present here, and they have the same sense of tension. In Infernal Affairs, there’s a bagpipes-at-a-police-funeral moment, and you can almost picture Marty watching this movie, snapping his fingers, and shouting, “I’ve got it! This movie, but in Boston!”
On the other hand, Infernal Affairs is very much a Hong Kong movie, and Hong Kong movies just do things differently. When major characters die here, we get tearful black-and-white flashbacks set to melodramatic pop music, which is just too sentimental for Scorsese. We also get a novelist character who’s working on a book with a central predicament that just so happens to exactly mirror the hero’s own internal struggle, which means she exists to blithely spell out the movie’s themes in 48-point font. And it’s all nearly an hour shorter, too. Hong Kong movies like to do business efficiently, so where Scorsese spends a ton of time showing us Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon going through internal struggles, here, that’s wrapped up in an opening montage, eventually leaving us with the undercover cop telling his boss exactly how he feels about being an undercover cop—telling rather than showing, but doing it quickly enough that the movie can jump right into its main story. And while this thing doesn’t have as many shootouts as your average Hong Kong action movie, those shootouts are still as grand and operatically staged as you might hope.
There’s no Mark Wahlberg character here, either, which means the movie doesn’t have the grim final punchline that Scorsese added. (This is the exceedingly rare case where a Hollywood movie has an ending way more bleak than its Hong Kong counterpart.) There’s no analog to Jack Nicholson more or less channeling Whitey Bulger, either: Lots of people think his performance is The Departed’s fatal flaw, broad and cartoonishly menacing and just silly. But Nicholson’s whole Satanic-mobster show is a lot more interesting than Internal Affairs’s central gangster, who’s really just a grim functionary of relatively little importance. In this telling, it’s really all about these two undercover chess opponents. Everything else fades into the background.
Both movies have big movie-star casts, but differences abound there, too. In The Departed, DiCaprio and Damon and Nicholson and Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen get chances to get all Method, trying out their thickest Boston accents and eating up the scenery. Infernal Affairs stars Andy Lau and Tony Leung, but while they may be huge names on their side of the world, they don’t do anything over-the-top here. Instead, they soulfully and quietly contemplate their own situations, both radiating a weird peace even as they attempt to figure out their respective identities. But even if you don’t know anything about the actors, you know you’re watching movie stars at work. Imagine if The Departed had DiCaprio and Damon singing an emotionally verklempt pop ballad on the soundtrack—that would be weird, but sort of awesome, right? Because Infernal Affairs totally has that.
As fun as it is to compare the two movies, though, this is its own beast, doing its own things. It has its own sense of atmosphere, with distorted golden Buddha statues everywhere and a quick pace that still gives it room to be glassy and contemplative. The scene of a cop’s body hitting a car’s rooftop is as brutal and visceral as anything in Scorsese’s movie, and its climactic rooftop confrontation, with its camera swooping around and taking in Hong Kong’s majestic mountains, is every bit as beautiful as what came after. Given the history, Infernal Affairs might not offer you many surprises. But it’s worth watching even without them.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one. You can read previous installments over here.