Screens into Different Cultures: Infernal Affairs and The Departed

Disclaimer: This is the solo initiative of an American student who was unable to establish contact with her Chinese partner.



Why Infernal Affairs and The Departed?

I selected these two films because The Departed (2006) is a Hollywood adaptation of the wildly successful Infernal Affairs (2002). As such, I thought it would be interesting to see how Martin Scorsese instilled cultural differences while maintaining plot similarities, and if there were any overt American/Hollywood treatment of the original. Furthermore, the two movies are technically gangster/thriller films, but are psychologically engaging, provoking viewers to question the nature of identity and what an identity means. I thought the theme of identity pertinent to our class’s focus on cross-cultural exchange and our investigation of the way movies can facilitate (or hinder) understanding of different cultures. What is identity and how is it/has it been formed in China and America in these two films?

The Plot (of Infernal Affairs)

The police and the Triad both plant a mole in the other organization: police officer Chen Wing-Yan infiltrates the Triad and Triad member Lau Kin-Ming the police. Years pass and the organizations discover the presence of a mole after a failed cocaine deal. Relations between the police and Triad intensify and it becomes a race to find the undercover agent; however, the internal tension of Chen and Lau are greater – having lived undercover for so long, they are beginning to question their identity.

The plot starts to reach its climax as Chen nearly uncovers Lau. Chen then meets with SP Wong, who has been tailed on Lau’s orders. The police and Triad both arrive at the meeting place and although Chen manages to escape, Triad members recognize SP Wong and throw him off the roof to his death, leaving Chen with no one on the inside who can confirm him as a cop.

While going through SP Wong’s possessions, Lau discovers his cell phone and uses it to establish contact with Chen. They plan interrupt Hon Sam’s next drug deal and Lau kills Hon. Chen comes to the police department to conclude his undercover work but discovers that Lau is the mole and leaves before his status as a police officer is restored. Realizing he’s been uncovered, Lau deletes Chen’s file.

The movie comes to its close when Chen mails Lau a compact disc of incriminating recordings. The two meet at the building where SP Wong was killed and Chen handcuffs Lau to arrest him. Inspector B, a police officer under Lau, arrives and kills Chen. He informs Lau that he was also an undercover agent right before Lau shoots him. The film ends with Chen’s funeral and Lau’s affirmation that he wishes he had chosen a different path. (There is an alternate ending where Lau is uncovered as the mole and is arrested.)

Slight Plot Deviations (of The Departed)

The Departed remains largely faithful to Infernal Affairs but also deviates slightly from Infernal Affairs. The two most noticeable changes are a change to the cast of major characters and the ending. The Departed adds the character of Dignam, who acts as second, and a foil, to Captain Queenan. Additionally, the characters of Dr. Lee (Chen’s psychiatrist turned lover) and Mary (Lau’s girlfriend) are consolidated into one character for The Departed: Madolyn, who is Costigan’s psychiatrist (turned lover) and Sullivan’s girlfriend.

The ending of The Departed remains faithful up to the conclusion of the elevator scene: Costigan handcuffs Sullivan for arrest, but is killed by Barrigan in the elevator. Barrigan reveals himself as another mole. Sullivan kills him. A funeral for Costigan is held, and he is finally recognized as an undercover cop. At this point, The Departed adds another scene: Costigan arrives at his apartment only to find Dignam with a gun in his hands. He says, “Oh, okay” before being shot in the head. The film ends with a shot of the window that features a rat outside.


The Ending of The Departed 

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Cast of Major Characters

Chen Wing Yan / William Costigan

Lau Kin Ming / Colin Sullivan

Hon Sam / Frank Costello

SP Wong Chi Shing / Captain Charles Queenan

/ Sean Dignam

Dr. Lee Sum Yee and Mary / Madolyn Madden

Inspector B/ Trooper Barrigan





Why the Variations of Plot and Character? 

In considering the differences between Infernal Affairs and The Departed, I wasn’t quite sure what accounted for the character alterations and the change in ending other than the “Hollywood” treatment. In condensing Chen and Lau’s love interests, The Departed adds the element of a love triangle. Additionally, the character of Dignam adds nothing surprisingly different to the plot other than his involvement at the end. The sense of justice and retribution is achieved at the end: the villain atones for his crimes properly with his death. Yet, in investigating the effect of this Hollywood treatment, a few cultural differences between China and the US become more apparent.

  • Romance, Sexuality, and Masculinity

In Infernal Affairs, romance is very much relegated to the background. The focus is on Chen and Lau and their involvement in Hong Kong’s crime scene. While Chen and Lau have love interests, the sexuality of these relationships is downplayed. While watching Infernal Affairs, I found it surprising how chaste the scene between Dr. Lee and Chen was. In comparison, The Departed is much more explicit. Costigan and Madolyn obviously have sex. Besides the more apparent sexuality of The Departed, which is compounded by the explicit language, Costello’s multiple women, and even the change of screening in the theater to porn, the love triangle serves additional purposes. That Madolyn is pregnant leads to a question of the father – it’s implied that Sullivan may be impotent; in which case, the child would be Costigan’s. The ambiguity challenges the masculinity of Sullivan and creates a more dramatic contrast between Costigan and Sullivan. Throughout the film, it’s apparent that sexuality is tied to masculinity: Sullivan mocks the fireman as being gay when the police department loses the football skirmish, and insults and threats invariably involve sexual references. That Madolyn presents a measurement of masculinity for Costigan and Sullivan both connects and distinguishes them. Her presence in both their lives draws a comparison that is subtly competitive: Costigan seems to be more sexually able, and thus, more masculine.


The Theater Scene

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  •  Psychological Nuances: Gangster vs Psychological Thriller

On the other hand, while The Departed is a longer film, it is a less psychologically nuanced film than Infernal Affairs. While Sullivan isn’t depicted as necessary villainous, and it’s probable that he regrets his involvement with the Costello’s mafia, his psychological speculations are never really investigated. Costigan is obviously conflicted about his involvement, but his stress results primarily from the constant threat of discovery, and consequently death. Neither Costigan or Sullivan really struggle with their identity in the way Chen and Lau do. In Infernal Affairs, it is obvious that both are experiencing a disconnect between their thoughts/internal self and their actions/external self. The boundary between cop and criminal is less defined, but instead is variable. Both characters are ultimately sympathetic, and Lau’s regret at Chen’s funeral offers retribution enough. With The Departed, however, Hollywood feels it necessary to make retribution concrete in the form of absolute revenge: Sullivan is killed, and thus is Costigan and Queenan atoned. The lack of insight into the psychological mindsets of Sullivan and Costigan necessitates a “cleaner” ending, and also explains the introduction of the love triangle subplot to maintain a dramatic tension. Interestingly, although American culture is credited with greater individualism and sense of self, the characters in Infernal Affairs are more nuanced and specific. Their internal struggles are not diminished or gratified through a romantic subplot, but fully explored. In that sense, The Departed is more of a gangster film while Infernal Affairs is more of a psychological thriller.


However, despite the Hollywood treatment, that Infernal Affairs could be adapted so easily and faithfully for an American audience reveals more similarities than differences. The settings of Boston and Hong Kong inform venues like the dark bars in The Departed and the high rises that punctuate Infernal Affairs’ scenery, but the almost complete translation of plot and characters affirms that themes like crime, love and identity are cross-cultural.

Yet what most distinguishes Infernal Affairs from The Departed is the recognition the two have received. While The Departed came away with four Academy awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing, Infernal Affairs was not even nominated for Best Foreign Picture. Both films are critically acclaimed, as they should be, yet it’s concerning that in the Western world, only the adaptation has been recognized with awards.  When taking a look at the poster below, Infernal Affairs is promoted as “The motion picture that inspired The Departed.” While The Departed is a worthy adaptation and original sources shouldn’t be privileged for merely being the best, Infernal Affairs is also a fantastic film that deserves its own separate accolades. Besides being a great film, Infernal Affairs has significance as revitalizing the Hong Kong film industry.

infernal affairs