Friday, December 29, 2017

Departing Asian Audient

This is the last in my 2017 bi-monthly Asian Audient series.

In a series in which I repeatedly failed in my attempts to find useful films from countries other than Japan, China (Hong Kong) and South Korea, it's fitting that I would end with a failure to find the movie from China that I wanted. Make that "movies."

Once I could tell that things were heading toward ending with a Chinese movie in December, I identified two primary candidates for the honor: Edward Yang's 2000 film Yi Yi, which I'd always heard listed among the best of that decade, and Wong Kar-Wai's 1994 film Chungking Express, which has always been a familiar title I thought I should seek out. (I'm mixed on the Wong films I have seen.)

I bet you can guess what happened. Neither film could be scraped up in any format I searched. Not streaming. Not for rental from iTunes. Not from the library. I probably could have bought it from Amazon or something but I don't really believing in buying a movie that I haven't seen, even though I'm sure there are sometimes good reasons to do so.

I did ultimately fulfill my desire of ending with a movie of some significance, though. And it ended up being one of my top three films of the whole series.

Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs (2002) was of course known to me, as it is to many, as the film that inspired The Departed. (Hence also the play on words in the subject of this post.) Probably because I loved The Departed as much as I did -- it was my #2 of that year -- I never sought out Infernal Affairs, like I did when, say, I loved Vanilla Sky and wanted to see what Abre Los Ojos was all about. I thought there was little chance that I would view it as anything other than an inferior Departed, since it's usually impossible to see a second version of a movie you love and consider its merits independent from that movie. You're always going to like the first thing you loved the best.

Well, Infernal Affairs is really making me reconsider that stance. It's like the lean and mean version of The Departed, which feels quite flabby when taken in comparison to Lau and Mak's movie.

As epic as The Departed is, I didn't think it was possible to tell that story in significantly less than that film's two hours and 31 minutes. It's long, but long in a way that always felt fully necessary to me.

Well, it's not fully necessary. Lau and Mak have given us the most clever parts of what ended up becoming The Departed without all the stuff that Martin Scorsese crammed in to graft that plot onto the story of Whitey Bulger (played by Jack Nicholson in that movie and fictionalized as a person named Frank Costello). And in doing so, they've brought the movie in at a mere one hour and 42 minutes -- a whole 50 minutes shorter. In fact, now I'm really eager to watch The Departed again as soon as I can, to determine exactly what Scorsese's contributions were that elevated the material -- other than just giving us the story without forcing us to read subtitles. It wasn't the closing shot of the rat running along the railing, I can tell you that.

Infernal Affairs contains certain lines of dialogue that I thought were overly expository when I first heard them, but in thinking about it, I realized that's only because I'm familiar with The Departed and didn't need the essential character dynamics elaborated for me. In reality, whatever conveniences may exist in the dialogue are indeed quite helpful. This movie has the potential to be quite complicated, as any film with double crosses and multiple undercover agents infiltrating the other side can be. The help from the dialogue is decidedly not excessive.

I also liked the way the film explores a greater level of moral complexity than The Departed, from what I remember of The Departed. SPOILERS for both movies. In Infernal Affairs, Lau (Andy Lau), the guy who infiltrates the police from the side of the drug cartel (called a triad), seems to have genuinely complicated feelings about serving the mob boss, a result of his long-term exposure to a conventional life. He ends up shooting and killing his boss, much as Matt Damon's Colin Sullivan does to Costello in The Departed.

However, that shooting seems motivated by the unnecessary twist of Costello himself actually being a mole, which is not an element of Infernal Affairs (and indeed feels like one of the most narratively problematic parts of The Departed, needed to make it resemble the life of Whitey Bulger). So you get the sense that Damon's character is not really undergoing a change, but rather, doubling down on his enforcement of the criminal code. It may be more complicated than that (I haven't seen The Departed since 2007), but I remember thinking of Leonardo DiCaprio's Billy Costigan as unambiguously the hero of that piece, and Sullivan as unambiguously its villain, especially after the other villain gets knocked off. Infernal Affairs is not nearly so eager to assign those roles, to its credit. It's sad that western audiences weren't considered capable of fully appreciating the shades of gray.

Infernal Affairs also reveals how set pieces that I thought might have been Scorsese's invention clearly were not. The memorable bit where Damon and DiCpario are on opposite sides of a cell phone conversation, both refusing to speak for fear of exposure to the other, did indeed originate here. So too does the bit with the police captain getting thrown off the building, and even DiCaprio getting shot in an elevator, which happens to Tony Leung's Chan in this film. Was Scorsese's contribution really only limited to Costello gesticulating with a severed arm while having his lunch?

I also really loved the lead performances from Lau and Leung, who are some of Hong Kong's biggest male stars. (And seeing Leung, who has worked regularly with Wong, helps with having missed seeing him in Chungking Express.) The fact that Lau also co-directed the film just makes it all the more impressive.

If there's one area that gets the short shrift with the decreased running time, it's the development of the two female characters, played here by Kelli Chan and Sammi Cheng, in The Departed by Vera Farmiga -- as both characters. I didn't remember until looking it up just now that Farmiga is entangled with both Sullivan and Costigan, which is a bit convenient. Chan's psychiatrist character really only gets two short scenes with Tony Leung's character, and really nothing to speak of in terms of a romantic relationship, though one is hinted at. I suppose I missed that element of the movie, but not overly.

Overall I was just really impressed with what a tight and solid film this is, boiling the story down to its essential elements while still allowing us the space to contemplate the origins of good and evil and the way exposure to the other can change you. I suspect that the film's sequels are significantly less interesting, as is pretty much always the case in these instances, but Infernal Affairs itself is first-rate.

Okay. That's it for Asian Audient. When finishing a series I usually like to give you some kind of look back on the previous 12 months and 12 films, though I don't always do it within the same post. However, I don't see myself getting back to this in the crunch of January, so I'll just wrap up with some quick thoughts here.

One of my disappointments about this series is that a number of the films I watched ended up feeling more like films I'd stumbled over than essential viewing. That was in part due to my personal mandate to diversify among countries. The stumbling element might have started with me watching Drunken Master at the end of January in order to cram something in to the first month of the year, just because it was available on Netflix. That film feels especially redundant looking back now, as I ended up with two other movies in the martial arts genre (Enter the Dragon and Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear, both of which don't even have an Asian language as their primary language). You can kind of add one more if you include the Indonesian film Headshot, which was also the series' worst film. So I kind of got off on the wrong foot and never fully recovered. Though you could also say that conceiving of a film series in which I watched one film per month from the extremely large region of Asia was getting off on the wrong foot even before then. What can I say, I like my alliteration and could not resist the title Asian Audient once I'd thought of it.

On the positive side, I did expose myself to some genuine classics that have become new favorites, such as two of the Japanese prestige pictures I watched, Ozu's Late Spring and to a slightly lesser extent, Kurosawa's High and Low. I found myself wishing I could watch more films from both directors, though because I'd limited myself to only four from Japan for the whole year, it made sense not to repeat any directors. Which brought me to Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff ... which I did not like.

If the purpose of the series was to kickstart my tendency to watch films from this region of the world, then I think it was a success. There were times when I wanted to watch another Asian film this year but I thought it would have disrupted my one-per-month schedule, which is just silly. In 2018 I won't be limited even by that artificial constraint. I thought I had gotten lax in watching Asian films, which is what prompted the series in the first place, and I think I'm over that now.

Stay tuned in January for a preview of what I'll be doing in 2018. I think it will be good, and will require twice the viewing, with the same likelihood of sourcing difficulties. Should be interesting!

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