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Friday, March 30, 2007

Defending THE DEPARTED makes me a mindless Hollywood drone?

**Warning: This post contains spoilers for THE DEPARTED and INFERNAL AFFAIRS**

My recent involvement in a new production, coupled with my month-long addiction to Final Fantasy 12 made me too busy to actually post much here. I know some occasional film reviews and a once-in-a-blue-moon videoblog entry, peppered with one or two of Justin's 'too bored to blog' posts in the past month hadn't really make this blog that interesting. So I intend to write something I've been feeling rather strongly about in the past week.

The kind of hate THE DEPARTED had generated from hardcore INFERNAL AFFAIRS fans since its victory at last month's Academy Awards had started to irk me. But then, their reactions towards THE DEPARTED ever since Brad Pitt bought the remake rights years ago hadn't been exactly exemplary. And I've always believed that everyone's been waiting for a chance to rip the movie apart, to nitpick at the smallest things, to throw rationality and objectivity in the wind and condemn those ignorant gwailos for defiling our much-beloved yellow culture.

I quote from my THE DEPARTED review here:

There are lots of contradictions, Asian film lovers hate the idea of Hollywood remaking the film, accusing creative bankruptcy, yet they won't be happy unless the remake is a frame-to-frame remake, regardless of the differences of cultures and styles. It's annoying

I was annoyed then, I'm annoyed again. My supposedly-dormant annoyance was triggered when I was having a look at the theCICAK, a peer-reviewed Malaysian political and popular culture online publication (or to make it sound simpler, it's a group blog), wondering what should I contribute to them after being invited to do thus by their managing editor Krystle Chow last year (an early idea was to write about my personal experience during last Monday's Malaysian Shorts when my short film was screened, check out my video of the event here).

I then came upon this article by Chan SHiJun aka Sigma, which, in truth, was really a rant against THE DEPARTED's victory. Let me quote a few paragraphs, and then follow them with my responses. I have actually left a comment at this entry, but I think it's better for me to expand upon my points.

The Departed won best film at the 79th Academy Awards. It also won best adapted screenplay.

I don’t care if the actors in it won stuff. But for those two categories above, I do take offence. How could a remake be awarded best film? I mean, since it’s based 95 percent on the superior Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, maybe they should have just given that award to directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, and their crew instead.

Apart from great acting, the one main thing which made The Departed "good" among critics and cinemagoers alike was its terrific plotline of "double diametric moles." But this strength is directly 100 percent taken from Infernal Affairs.

Somewhere along the way I heard they wanted to position The Departed as a film that was only inspired by our story, rather than an adaptation … I would have hoped some new elements were being introduced to it,” said Mak, writer of Infernal Affairs, according to The China Post.

So how does it justify the movie winning best film?

And best screenplay? Oh my god, that’s even worse. It’s like taking my friend’s great Mandarin essay, paraphrasing it a little and translating it into English, and then winning an essay competition with it. Has William Monahan, the screenwriter for The Departed, no shame? What a hollow win for him. Luckily Hollywood was aware enough to award it Best “Adapted” Screenplay rather than Best “Original” Screenplay. For that at least we can be thankful.

Pause. Here's my reply.

Now, everything's a matter of opinion. Being Asians, of course we are more likely to declare IA as an unrivaled masterpiece. After all, the culture behind Infernal Affairs is closer to us. The in-jokes, the beliefs, the subtlety, we can relate to.

9 out of my 10 friends (all Asians) I asked said that they prefer IA over THE DEPARTED. I'm not surprised. The last one was the ever-objective and awesome Brian the Cinematographer, who shared my sentiments that both films are TOO different to really make any direct comparisons.

I love Infernal Affairs as much as any regular Asian cinema lover out there, I watched it repeatedly just like anyone here does. Showed it to female friends who came to my place, watched it for personal reference when doing an earlier short film, FORCED LABOUR, to the point where I could even memorize the lines.

Hey, I could even recognize the supporting actors, when I saw the guy who played the superintendent (you know, the one who played golf with Andy Lau in this one scene) at a seafood restaurant in KL, I joyously approached him and asked to take photos with him.

However, just as I've mentioned in my review, I enjoyed THE DEPARTED too. I liked what Scorsese brought into the movie, definitely believed that if a lesser director had chosen to do a frame by frame remake of the film (like Gus Van Sant did with PSYCHO), the movie would never had worked.

It's public knowledge that this is NOT Scorsese's best film, no one's comparing this with TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL or GOODFELLAS. And yes, his victory had a lot to do with him being screwed over numerous times in the past. No one's denying that either.

But compare THE DEPARTED with Scorsese's previous works, GANGS OF NEW YORK (... urgh, the only thing I liked about it was Butcher Bill's badassness) and THE AVIATOR (good biopic, but ultimately... just your generic well-made biopic), both blatant Oscar baits, THE DEPARTED was definitely less pretentious and more entertaining.

My recent discussion with Krystle showed our much contrasting views towards the film. To her, THE DEPARTED was NOT a film that didn't take itself seriously, and because of that, it was sorely lacking at those dramatic and emotional elements (basically, it lacked the wondrous Asian melodrama we saw in INFERNAL AFFAIRS), while to me, I thought THE DEPARTED was pretty much a black comedy, especially towards the end, when everyone started getting killed off. There were lots of chuckling and giggling in the cinema when I saw THE DEPARTED last year. (ask Justin)

I will compare this crucial scene that reinforced my opinion that THE DEPARTED really does not take itself as seriously as INFERNAL AFFAIRS did. The death scene of Anthony Wong/ Martin Sheen's character.

In the HK version:
Anthony Wong fell onto the taxi without any warning. Eliciting shock from audiences (my dad told me that my mom screamed pretty loudly when they went to see it). Then, slow mo of Tony Leung turning around, staring at the corpse. Sad hymn music began playing, then we see black and white flashbacks of Tony Leung and Anthony Wong during their happier moments. (... my horrid description made IA look like a non-cowboy Brokeback Mountain)

In The Departed
We can already see Martin Sheen falling off from the building (some gasps from audiences, who were mostly Aussies, thus having not seen the original film before). And hit the floor with a resounding SPLAT, and we have blood SPLATTERING on Leo, with blood-covered Leo gasping "WHAT THE FUCK??". Some of us in the cinema laughed. It was kinda funnier when the police who were hiding in the car had NO IDEA what just fell off from the building.

Seriously, did anyone really think that Scorsese was aiming to do what Andrew Lau and Alan Mak did with that scene? Maybe each individual has a different interpretation of a movie. So it's pointless for me to dwell into this.

However, anti-American sentiments are high, hating Hollywood is cool, so it’s unsurprising that dissing them for remaking Asian films, or accusing them of creative bankruptcy is the way to go. (Of course, we should conveniently try to FORGET the fact that all these years, Asian cinema had borrowed shamelessly from Hollywood, without even giving credit to the source materials. Sigh. That includes even the almighty Bollywood)

But since when THE DEPARTED should be penalized for being a REMAKE? Perhaps we should start spitting on MAGNIFICENT SEVEN because it's a remake of SEVEN SAMURAI.

How about going one step further and start condemning ALL adapted works?

Lord of the Rings sucked because it was adapted from JRR Tolkien’s books and didn’t spring up from Peter Jackson’s loins… I mean, brains.

Or Star Wars sucked because it’s really a remake of Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress.

Now, I wonder whether we should crucify Kurosawa because he was sooooo unoriginal that he had to *GASP* STEAL Shakespeare’s King Lear to make Ran.

Speaking of Shakespeare, It’s fortunate that I never saw Shakespeare fans throw a hissy fit when The Banquet bastardized Hamlet. Oh, but then, being Asian cinema, I’m sure we can forgive them for anything they do. Even though The Banquet, aside some unintentionally hilarious moments, and Ge You's awesomeness, really sucked.

Poor Shakespeare, if only Asian viewers cared about you as much as they cared about Alan Mak or Andrew Lau. Or maybe he's not getting that much love cos' Billy the Bard's a gwailo.

Now, let me continue with Sigma's article:

Notice I didn’t bag-out Scorsese winning best director. I can still accept that, since a director’s job is to coax good performances from his actors, and he did that.

For the record, I am still saying that Infernal Affairs is the better film. The pacing, the suspense, the buildup, the ending and the cinematography was way better than in The Departed.

... being a filmmaker myself, I can definitely assure you all that a director's job is more than just coaxing good performances from his actors. But I'll let that slide.

Now, his preference for IA is purely subjective. If he was expecting THE DEPARTED to be a frame-by-frame remake of INFERNAL AFFAIRS, of course he was disappointed.

However, one thing I do not agree with most people is that the cinematography in INFERNAL AFFAIRS is better than THE DEPARTED. Because, seriously, they are too different to compare.

Now, I'm on Christopher Doyle's bandwagon just as much as anyone else, I find it a travesty that he didn't get any Oscar nominations AT ALL for the things he did in those Wong Kar Wai films (especially IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, or 2046) or HERO. His work in INFERNAL AFFAIRS was to give it a slick, stylized MTV look.

Meanwhile, veteran cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, a long-time collaborator of Martin Scorsese (they worked together on GOODFELLAS, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and GANGS OF NEW YORK) and also the guy who shot FABULOUS BAKER BOYS, WILD WILD WEST, AIR FORCE ONE, Coppola's DRACULA etc. was given the task of making the film more gritty and realistic.

Cinematography is not my expertise (maybe Brian will have more to say here), so I cannot really make any quick judgments. But I just want to voice out that just because Infernal Affairs went for the stylized MTV aesthetics does not mean that THE DEPARTED's cinematography is vastly inferior. Cinematography is more complex than that.

For example, CHILDREN OF MEN's had a really gritty look, as compared to PAN's LABYRINTH's dark stylish fantasy look, the Oscar went to the latter, but it's almost universal opinion that CHILDREN OF MEN was robbed.

I guess what I want to say is that... Good cinematography does not = making nice MTV visuals. There's more to it than that.

I am also maintaining that Scorsese bordered on dishonesty in not clearly acknowledging Infernal Affairs in his film. He should have done what The Lake House did and clearly stated that it was a remake at the BEGINNING of the film. It’s just not enough to do that in tiny fonts during the end-credit rolls.

And I’m not the only one saying this. The Australian also has readers who are pissed that The Departed won. They’re also pissed with the arrogant attitude of Hollywood and Scorsese in not clearly acknowledging Infernal Affairs in their film and during the Oscars. And the bitter sentiment is global!

So, which movie did you prefer? Infernal Affairs or The Departed? If it’s the latter, you’d better come up with some solid arguments to defend your stance.

Here's a part of Scorsese's acceptance speech.

"... I’ve got thank Warner Bros.’ Alan Horn and Dan and Jeff and I’ve got to thank our producers Brad Grey and Graham King and Mac Brown and my old friend Joe Reidy, we’re working for 20 years. And Rick Yorn and John Lesher and Chris Donnelly and Ari Emanuel. And that crazy script by Bill Monahan that got me in all this trouble in the first place. And Andrew Lau’s original film from Hong Kong, the wonderful Asian cinema."

Like Sebastian (who commented as well), Scorsese mentioned Andrew Lau in his acceptance speech and made it a point to mention that it is from HK in order to (subtly) correct the announcer who made the mistake of saying that the original version is from Japan.

To my consternation, it turned out that the author of the post was actually FURIOUS because Scorsese mentioned the name of the director, ANDREW LAU and not the actual film title, INFERNAL AFFAIRS. And not because Scorsese had completely ignored the existence of the film.

Pardon me, but when the author said something like "I heard Scorsese’s acceptance speech. No mention whatsoever about IA in there" as a retort to Sebastian's blog comment, I wasn't expecting his line to be that literal.

But my point is, if people are interested in the actual movie, they WILL find out about it regardless of whether Scorsese SCREAMED Infernal Affairs like a little girl, have the title flashing on neon signs, or whether he merely mentioned ANDREW LAU. It’s not as if the mere mention of INFERNAL AFFAIRS would actually have everyone flocking into the theaters DYING to see the movie.

(I'm one of the rare people in this planet who LIKED Vanilla Sky, yet I'm still not compelled to check out 'ABRE LOS OJOS'. Hell, I enjoyed Steven Soderbergh's 'OCEAN ELEVEN', I know it's a remake of an older film starring the Rat Pack, but I'm not interested to watch it.)

Let's face it, Scorsese was in a lose-lose situation. If he mentions INFERNAL AFFAIRS, I'm sure there are people who will throw a hissy fit and accuse him of NOT REMEMBERING THE NAME OF THE ORIGINAL DIRECTORS. Hell, I think even if he had mentioned INFERNAL AFFAIRS and ANDREW LAU, there are people who will be pissed that ANDREW MAK (... actually, I myself DID wonder why no one made a big deal about him not being mentioned that much at all when there were actually TWO directors for Infernal Affairs), ANDY LAU, TONY LEUNG, CHAPMAN TO, CHRISTOPHER DOYLE, KELLY CHEN, ERIC TSANG, ANTHONY WONG, blah blah, you know, the WHOLE CAST AND CREW of Infernal Affairs not being mentioned by Scorsese too.

I didn't like the tone in the last paragraph of the post. It felt like condescension and an inability to accept differing opinions. People who preferred INFERNAL AFFAIRS will be embraced like brothers, whilst those who had the misfortune of liking THE DEPARTED more had to 'come up with some solid arguments to defend their stance'?

What's up with that? It felt like a challenge. It's like:

If you like INFERNAL AFFAIRS more = pro-Asian, possesses "Malaysia BOLEH!" spirit!
If you like THE DEPARTED more = peon of the evil machinations of Hollywood.

I will quote Obi-Wan Kenobi for this.

"Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes!"

Everyone in Asia, from filmmakers to hardcore film fans, from casual filmgoers to noodles-selling aunties have spent their time dissing the evil force known as Hollywood, so I'm not going to waste time with that. What for? There are times when I love mainstream Hollywood films more than some pretentious Asian arthouse fare, or opt to watch a mindlessly entertaining rom-com over some self-serious European sociodrama.

It'll be hypocritical of me to lash so much at Hollywood when some people might caught me in a cinema, enjoying 300.

There are arguments that Asian cinema are much better than Hollywood fare. That Hollywood is definitely suffering from creative bankruptcy (god, how many times must I use this term?) To those who believe in this strongly, all I can say is... well, at least Hollywood didn't make something like TWINS MISSION or PROTEGE DE LA ROSE NOIR.

Okay, seriously, Asian cinema are deemed 'better' and more 'creative' than your typical mindless Hollywood blockbuster because, well, only the really good films get to travel overseas for international audiences. And because of that, many are quick to believe that anything churned out by Asian countries is gold.

Er, once again, TWINS MISSION, anybody? How about CONFESSION OF PAIN? How about DRAGON TIGER GATE?

Everyone's burning with righteous Asian fury, nationalistic pride, believing themselves to be the underdogs shut down by THE EVIL FORCE. But the truth is, there are just as much shitty Korean films as shitty Hollywood films. I say Korea because they've been at the forefront of Asian cinema in recent years.

For every single THE HOST or OLD BOY, we get countless rubbish like TYPHOON, BICHUNMOO or HI! DHARMA 2 or MARRYING THE MAFIA 2 (okay, the last one's kinda enjoyable). Actually, I would name more Korean crap films, but I usually strike them off my memory after watching them. For every INFERNAL AFFAIRS in Hong Kong, we also get... TWINS MISSION, or some cheap Wong Jing film.

I DON'T completely supporting Hollywood for their treatment of INFERNAL AFFAIRS, I fumed just as much everyone else when that moronic announcer called IA a Japanese film during the Oscars (in fact, if the article in THECICAK had focused more of its bile and venom towards that announcer's goof-up, I wouldn't be that annoyed).

I winced when they bought up rights to remake EXILED, wondering what Hollywood director could match Johnnie To's visionary brilliance and technical artistry when remaking a film like that. After all, EXILED is really more a director's film, being so thin on plot and such.

Face it, the reason why Hollywood's churning out so much crap and distribute them internationally is because THEY DO SELL. Don't just blame the filmmakers, blame the consumers too. Who were the ones who helped PEARL HARBOUR make 200 million in the box-office back then? Who were the ones who flocked into the theaters for GHOST RIDER and NORBIT now? Filmmaking is still a business, you know. Hollywood might stop making more shitty movies if the mainstream public stops giving a shit about them.

Perhaps my degree in marketing gives me a higher tolerance towards commercialism (I took only a one-year crash course in filmmaking after getting my degree) thus I am not artsy fartsy enough to demand all films to be made entirely for art and nothing else. Otherwise we'll have a film industry like Taiwan's, where commercial films are rare, and they are entirely dominated by your latest Tsai Min Liang film.

Of course, it's ironic that I would come up with something like the previous paragraph, considering that most friends and family had been accusing me of making short films that are too... arty and inaccessible. (it's slightly discouraging when people end up on my blog because they ran a Google search for the audience choice's award winners at MALAYSIAN SHORTS, and not because of my own 'GIRL DISCONNECTED', haha)

But then, maybe I'm just not a guy who like to take sides. And perhaps I'm a guy easily annoyed by fanaticism, generalization, stereotyping, bigotry and extremism.