The Great Remake Debate

A one-off battle.

In the blue corner, Hel (TFD) and in the red corner, The Littlest Picture Show (LPS). Here they examine the contemporary and classic reimagining and verbally duke-out the pros and cons.

This bout…

Infernal Affairs (Alan Mak & Wai-Keung Lau, 2002) vs. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)


Infernal Affairs (Mon gaan dou) opens with Ming (Andy Lau) and Yan (Tony Leung) drafted into the police force, as eighteen year old cadets. One, Yan, goes undercover to infiltrate Triad organisation headed by Hon Sam (Eric Tsung), while the other, Ming, works as a his mole inside the department. They soon discover the other’s existence and set about exposing their true identities. The Departed fast forwards four years and in Boston, Massachusetts. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) find themselves in a similar predicament as State Policemen working for Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).

1. Narrative/Plot

LPS: Whilst you can see the similarities to an overall story, it’s really only obvious in certain key scenes. However, The Departed conveys the story a lot clearer, with more fluidity to the narrative progression and fleshes it all out so it felt more accomplished and comprehensive. It also weaves the subplots and supporting roles into the essence of the main story. Infernal Affairs had flimsy sub-plotting almost to the point of it being redundant (the ex partner and daughter, anyone?).

TBT: The slow –burn narrative of IA subverts expectations and the subtlety of the sub-plot is not necessarily flimsy but more to develop character. Yan’s ex-partner and daughter signify what he has sacrificed. I agree with comprehensive but to the point of too much! Spoon-feeding the audience can have a detrimental effect.

Round 1: LPS

2. Casting, cinematography, generic traits, themes

LPS: Casting for TD far outweighs IA in terms of quality and prowess. Nicholson is a more menacing, maniacal bad guy, and Leo is a likeable protagonist. It’s easier to follow as a story as you have recognisable faces such as Damon and DiCaprio, as well as the supporting cast that drift in and out of the film effortlessly. The clear difference is the settings (Hong Kong and Boston) and I think it really alters the perception and tone of each. Because of budgetary constraints, TD clearly wins here as it looks far more atmospheric and convincing. Plus, even though IA has some nice locales, TD overall appears a lot more polished, throughout and impressive.

TBT: Lau and Leung are the most commercially successful actors in their native Hong Kong and have been since the mid-80s. IA is a stripped down noir thriller that differs from the usual style of Hong Kong filmmaking and chooses to avoid overt violence. Instead, it builds upon the quiet desperation and elusive complexity of its leading characters. Rather than cram into its 101 minutes, directors Mak and Lau choose the use of montage and flashback sequences to ground the history of their characters. When Lau and Leung do eventually face-off near the film’s dénouement it is reminiscent of Pacino and De Niro in Michael Mann’s Heat; less is most definitely more and makes for a more nuanced and engaging film. Plus, they’re physically different (Lau has hardened features while Leung is more boyish and sensitive looking) and yet both are likable. TD’s leads are very similar; Damon, although we’re meant to care (seeing him as child, etc) is vile, DiCaprio does, well, DiCaprio…

Round 2: TBT

3. Originality – does the remake capture the original’s essence? Is it different enough to be a stand-alone film?

LPS: TD does indeed capture the essence of the original, but brings so much more to the table – meatier exposition, a clearer coherency for story, structure and subplots. What’s more, TD trounces IA in terms of the script, notably for its superb dialogue.

TBT: TD takes the themes of organised crime, religion and the mirroring duality of its leading protagonists and ups the ante with ideas of masculinity and misogyny. Scorsese throws everything at this film; over-elaborate cinematography, multi-layered sub-plots which can lead to a feeling of over-egging. The gangster-genre is Scorsese’s domain and here he makes his normative Italian gangsters Irish and replaces De Niro for DiCaprio who, along with Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon, delivers an over-amplified performance. TD has more potential as 21st century remake of Goodfellas, via Hong Kong.

Round 3:  TBT & LPS

4. The re-imagining – changes/alterations.

LPS: TD adds to all of IA’s basic elements. Sure, the original is an interesting idea, but I feel TD really builds upon the existing foundations. It obviously helps that Scorsese directs, and is accompanied by a big budget and excellent ensemble, too. The changes are for the better, as I found the original very vague in places and hard to follow. If I hadn’t had seen TD several times before IA, then I’d have had no idea what was going on in it and would’ve been rather lost early on because of the manner in how the story is told.

TBT: See, I watched IA before TD and found that there are some subtle and some not-so-subtle nods to the original, specifically within the mise-en-scène but, yes, essentially this is a Scorsese feature – and his name carries severe weight in Hollywood. The inclusion of the love story is radically different from IA and Vera Farmiga is a great addition, however, her potential falls by the wayside as she becomes the only object of connection between Costigan and Sullivan; a ‘pretty little lady’ in a man’s world.

Round 4: LPS & TBT

Final comment

LPS: Overall, TD is far more accessible due to its westernisation. It all works so nicely and forms a brilliant movie, whereas IA feels a little sporadic in its moments of quality and class. The dynamics of both are quite different, and having seen TD before IA, the latter almost feels like a rushed version of what I’ve become so accustomed to.

TBT: TD takes visceral violence, realism, Catholic reverence amid phallic allusions and mummy-complexes and subjugates the spirituality and the slow building burn of tension of IA. I can see why an audience would enjoy it; however, Scorsese takes sufficient time to establish characters and fabricate back stories and then rushes the final thirty minutes of the film which is unfortunate. Can we really suggest that the use of subtitles alienates the Western audience from the original?  I loved the edifice of tension in both, however, felt nothing when Damon and DiCaprio eventually did come face-to-face – now THAT was rushed.

Verdict: Tie

Check out Hel’s sparring partner here: Littlest Picture Show

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