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September 7, 2007

Dissed in Translation

Here's my best shot at taking Scorcese down a few pegs ...

Dissed in Translation

This year's Academy Awards were swept by a film, The Departed, which is set in Boston but based on another film set in Hong Kong. When mentioning that Martin Scorsese's winning film was a remake, the presenter described the original, Infernal Affairs (2002), as having been made in Japan, not Hong Kong. This error was soon corrected, but it fits into a larger pattern. Amid the brouhaha over The Departed (for which Scorsese won his first Best Director award), few serious comparisons have been made with Infernal Affairs. This is regrettable, because the relationship between the two is summed up by a comment Samuel Johnson is said to have made to an aspiring writer: "Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good."

What is good about The Departed? First, the plot, which is taken directly from Infernal Affairs (directed by Alan Mak, Andrew Lau, written by Mak and Felix Chong). Two police cadets go undercover, one posing as a gangster while reporting to the cops, the other posing as a cop while reporting to the gangsters. Time passes, and their fates become entwined as each is assigned to track down the other. Finally, each suffers a crisis of conscience, not to say identity, as the line between good and evil becomes blurred.

The Departed also contains some good acting, especially from Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy, the scruffy, soulful police mole; and Matt Damon as Colin, the smooth, handsome gangster mole. In Infernal Affairs, these parts are played by two Hong Kong stars: the smoldering Tony Leung as Chan, the police mole; and the elegant Andy Lau as Lau, a mole in the "triad" (the Hong Kong term for gang). Equally important are the older actors who serve as mentors to the moles. In Infernal Affairs, the mentor to Chan is Superintendent Wong, played by the gifted Anglo-Chinese actor Anthony Wong. And overseeing Lau is the triad boss, Sam, played by the cherubic Eric Tsang in a brilliant blend of the comic and the tragic.

In The Departed, these roles are taken by two Hollywood heavyweights: Martin Sheen as police Captain Queenan, and Jack Nicholson as mafioso Frank Costello. But here the films diverge in a way distinctly unflattering to Martin Scorsese. Because the plot is about moral compromise and ambiguity, it's important to lay down markers showing
where the gray stops and the black-and-white begins In Infernal Affairs, these markers are most clearly laid down in the subtle, intelligent portrayal of the two senior men who send their juniors into dubious battle. These characters proved so compelling to the audience that they were placed at the center of Infernal Affairs II, the second film in what became a trilogy.

Wong and Sam first come into their own in a scene in Infernal Affairs where Sam has been brought in for questioning. Because Wong lacks the evidence to press charges, Sam is sitting at a table in the central police station, calmly scarfing down some tasty-looking takeout as though he hasn't a care in the world. With a dozen or so triad members and police (including the two moles) looking on, Sam grins at Wong and expresses his relief that, so far, the food does not appear to be poisoned. Wong smiles benevolently: "There's always dessert." The two men then spar about who will be first to unearth the other's mole. Wong tells a story about two kidney patients, each in need of a transplant, who enter into a contest to see who will get the single kidney available. Each selects a playing card and places it in the other's pocket, and the first to guess the card in his own pocket wins. Sam and Wong needle each other about this until Sam loses his cool, jumping up and sweeping the takeout off the table. This is significant, because while both mentor figures demonstrate self-discipline, the good guy, Wong, demonstrates more.

There is no such scene in The Departed, probably because self-control is not a big item with Scorsese. His mentors are lazy caricatures who inhabit a moral universe too muddled to admit either compromise or ambiguity. We are told that Captain Queenan, the good guy, is a pious Catholic and upstanding cop. But the character we see has about as much grit and flavor as tap water. The bad guy, Costello, resembles the water at the other end of the sewage system. Costello's true nature is also revealed while he is eating. But rather than lose control the way Sam does Costello shows none to begin with. Half-gobbling, half-spitting a boiled lobster, he brandishes a plastic bag containing a freshly severed human hand. Then, in a shot that deliberately mixes the red of the blood with that of the lobster (suggesting that perhaps he might make a meal of both), he yanks off the dead man's ring and tosses it to his sidekick: "Send this to his wife." The sidekick delivers the sort of line that now passes for wit in Hollywood: "Thought it was nice the way you asked him which hand he jerked off with."

Flight from Repression

The repulsive Costello is portrayed with such zest that it's hard to know where the filmmakers' sympathies truly lie. William Monahan is the sort of scriptwriter who would be lost without the f-word; and Nicholson no longer seems to care how deeply his image sinks in trendy muck. The real culprit, though, is Scorsese's neurotic relationship to the working-class Catholicism of his youth. The delicate, high-strung son of Sicilian parents in New York, Scorsese attended parochial schools and at the age of 14 enrolled at Cathedral College, the archdiocesan seminary. In interviews, he often refers to himself as "a former seminarian" who was "expelled" because of uncontrollable sexual urges. "I discovered girls," he says, "and started dreaming."

According to other reports, though, it was less libido than bad grades that drove young Marty to Cardinal Hayes High School and thence to New York University Film School, where he found his vocation with the respected Haig Manoogian. At any rate, Scorsese frequently quotes the epigraph (from John Ruskin) of Manoogian's classic 1966 text, The Film-Maker's Art: "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something clearly, and tell what it saw in a plain way." It is admirable that Scorsese should remain loyal to his old professor. But it is ironic that he should cite this passage, because there are two things this celebrated director has never done well: see clearly and tell plainly.

From the beginning, Scorsese's films have favored characters who are "passionate," quick to anger and lust, not "repressed" in the manner of the Irish nuns and priests he knew as a boy. A good example would be Johnny-Boy in Mean Streets (played by Robert De Niro in his first major role). He is selfish, impulsive, but somehow charismatic--annoying, but not disgusting. Yet over time, Scorsese's flight from Catholic repression has driven him ever deeper into ugly realms of perversity and violence, as though these were the only authentic human experiences. Catholic film buffs have struggled to wring messages of redemption out of Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Goodfellas (1990). But these efforts are not convincing, because what these films offer is a tour through hell--and a shallow hell at that, because Scorsese lacks the ability to evoke real suffering, or indeed any strong emotion, with the possible exception of anger. A striking contrast with this affectless style can be seen in A Bronx Tale (1993), based on the play by Chazz Palminteri and directed by De Niro. Without indulging in sentiment, this film treats the same milieu as Scorsese's films in a way that restores the missing ingredients: love, hatred, loyalty, power, healthy eroticism, forgiveness, and grace.

Utter Viciousness

Affectless art can succeed if it's combined with cold analysis. Scorsese has sometimes achieved this result, but to do so he needs a first-rate writer like Paul Schrader. Unfortunately, Monahan is not even second-rate. His take on working-class Catholicism consists of unrelieved nastiness. The child abuse scandals, first uncovered in Boston, are seized upon with relish in a scene in which Costello self-righteously insults two priests and a nun. Yet this self-righteousness ill comports with the opening scene, where Costello is shown leering at the young daughter of a storekeeper while extorting money from her terrified father. At first the girl shrinks from him in disgust, but then he whispers something in her ear, and she smiles. It's a small moment, and meant to be a revealing one. But if a creep like Costello can find words to elicit a smile from a girl he has just been humiliating, we need to know what those words are. To hide them in a whisper is to cheat.

One could argue, I suppose, that because the greatest sin is hypocrisy, we should admire Costello for his honest wickedness. The moral integrity of the gangster is an old theme in Hollywood movies, especially those sophisticated enough to recall the mafia's presumed roots in resistance to feudal landlords in Sicily. Paul Rahe has written eloquently about how The Godfather (novel by Mario Puzo, film by Francis Ford Coppola) dramatizes the contrast between the "politics of friendship," as practiced by premodern societies going back to Rome, and the "politics of distrust," as embodied in the founding of the United States as a "modern republic."

But can this be applied to The Departed? Costello's only integrity is his utter viciousness, and even that is compromised by the revelation, made in passing and with no discernible dramatic consequences, that he is "a paid FBI informant." Costello has integrity only if we are prepared to accept viciousness as a form of protest against tyranny. But then we must ask: What tyranny? What sort of city is Boston? Is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts such an unjust system that a scumbag like Costello represents a more honorable alternative?

If Monahan ever took a break from the labor of typing four-letter words to ponder such questions, his script doesn't show it. The Departed opens with Costello delivering a
pop-existentialist monologue over footage of the riots that convulsed Boston in 1974, after a federal court ordered the busing of black students into working-class white neighborhoods to integrate the schools. One minute we hear a black eyewitness say of the white rioters, "I dunno, they put hate in your heart." The next, we hear Costello knock "the niggers" and "black chappies" for not realizing that "No one gives it to you, you have to take it." Is this relevant? Does the memory of Boston's busing crisis justify extortion, drug-dealing, murder, and cannibalistic table manners? If Monahan is playing the race card here, he needs to turn it face up so the audience can see what it means.

Political Realities

Boston has its problems, but when it comes to basic issues of political legitimacy and the use of force, Hong Kong is in a different category altogether. Last I checked, Boston is still part of the United States, and it has not experienced anything like Hong Kong's 1997 handover from Great Britain to the People's Republic of China (PRC). It is typical of Hollywood to be oblivious to such foreign political realities; don't forget, it was a presenter at the Oscars who confused Hong Kong with Japan. But there is nothing oblivious about Infernal Affairs. It's not a political movie, it's a cool, stylish thriller. But its central premise--that serving two masters is bad for the soul--resonates powerfully with the atmosphere of unease surrounding the handover.

The handover occurred amid promises that civil liberties would be preserved and democracy extended under the "One Country, Two Systems" touted by the PRC. But as many observers noted during the tenth anniversary this July, the future of both liberty and democracy in Hong Kong is far from assured. For example, during President Hu Jintao's visit on July 1, he made it clear that while the new chief executive, Donald Tsang, is far more competent and savvy than his predecessor, Tung Chee-Hwa, he would be no less beholden to pro-Beijing elements within the political establishment. And that establishment has hardly become more democratic. In 2003 the mainland government tried to impose strict security controls, bringing half a million protestors into the streets. Beijing backed off, but in 2004, its high court reinterpreted the Basic Law (Hong Kong's post-handover constitution) to block further extension of the franchise. And meanwhile, all but two of the major media companies in Hong Kong are so keen to curry favor with the capital, they avoid anything resembling critical journalism.

Viewed through this lens, Infernal Affairs becomes even more fascinating--especially the second film, which deals with the struggle of one triad family, the Ngais, to survive the handover. Do Hong Kong filmmakers identify with the triads? This may seem a stretch, but not if you consider Sam's rise to the top in Infernal Affairs II. The film opens in 1991, when Sam is still on the Ngai family payroll but friendly enough with Superintendent Wong that the latter tries to enlist him in eliminating the senior head of the family. This part of the plot has too many twists and turns to describe here, but the overall drift is clear: Sam ends up on top because he is the toughest, wiliest, best connected guy in the business. Not only does he get the better of the Ngai family, but he outwits the police, and until the very end manages to stay one jump ahead of some shady but useful friends from Thailand.
At the end of Infernal Affairs II, we see Sam alone on the eve of the handover, mourning his dead wife and brooding over the murders of the entire Ngai family carried out by his Thai friends in defiance of his wishes. To his objection that killing the whole family went much too far, his Thai partner replies that in this new era, "there is no such thing as going too far."

Here arises a weighty question: If you were a major player in the East Asian drug trade, willing to murder and bribe your way to power, which regime would you prefer to deal with, the one that flies the Union Jack, or the one that flies the hammer and sickle? Sam clearly prefers the former, but the cold, ruthless head of the Ngai family (played by Francis Ng) prefers the latter. Indeed, Ngai's ambitions reach further. On the eve of the handover, he is invited to a fancy dinner for "political consultative candidates" hosted by "Director Chen," a smiling power broker from the mainland. "If this works out," Ngai comments before the event, "our family will no longer have to live in the shadows."
It does not work out, because just as Ngai is making a favorable impression on Director Chen, Wong and his fellow officers run up the carpeted stairs of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant, where the dinner is taking place. Striding into the crowded reception area, Wong announces in a clear voice and with a faint but discernible air of defiance that he has a warrant for Ngai's arrest, that the charge is murder, and that anything Ngai says will be recorded and could be used against him in a court of law. If you don't know the historical background, this scene will slip right by you. But if you do know it, Wong's richly comic--and tragic--assertion of key civil liberties in the face of Hong Kong's new masters will stick in your mind as one of the great political moments in the history of cinema.

Seen on a map, Hong Kong and Boston appear similar: coastlines like a half-finished jigsaw puzzle, with so many bays, inlets, peninsulas, and islands that only God could memorize the whole footprint. Seen at sea level, though, the two cities differ dramatically: Hong Kong soars upward, both naturally and architecturally, while Boston lolls gently on low hills, barely summoning the energy for a downtown skyline. I'm not knocking Boston--after all, my roots there go back as far as possible without being Algonquin. But let's face it: compared to Hong Kong, Boston is a backwater. Still, my home town deserves better than the execrable treatment it gets in The Departed. If only someone in Hollywood could express the same tough love for an American city that Lau, Mak, and Chong express for Hong Kong, then what passes for originality might also be good.

This essay appeared first in The Claremont Review of Books.

Posted by mbayles at September 7, 2007 1:53 PM

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