WARNING: This post spoils both Infernal Affairs and the Departed. You have been warned!
The Departed’s premise looks on paper to be the craziest of ideas: a mole for a gang infiltrates the police force, while the police force also places a mole inside the gang. However, in the hands of a master director, Martin Scorsese, and an all-star cast, Leonardo DeCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, and Martin Sheen, the movie won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. The excellent movie The Departed (2006) was, in turn, a remake of a Hong Kong movie, whose English Title is Infernal Affairs (2002). This post will highlight the differences and similarities between the two movies, in terms of plot and overall message.
One of the biggest differences is at the very beginning: In the beginning of the Departed, a young Colin Sullivan (the future mole for a Boston Irish Mob gang) is taken under the wing of crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), who gives him special attention. On the other hand, in Infernal Affairs, young Lau Kin-Ming is part of an initiation ceremony where several gang members pledge to become the gang boss Hon Sam’s eyes and ears inside the police force. In the Departed, he was paid special attention, but in Infernal Affairs, he was one of many. Another early scene difference: in The Departed, Billy Costigan is recruited, following his graduation by the police academy, by Captain Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) to go undercover based on his family background in organized crime, and go to jail for a short time on a fake assault charge. In Infernal Affairs, no such scene exists, instead, in a montage of scenes in the police academy, Chen Wing-yan, is at first impressed by Superintendant Wong Chi-shing, but then is “kicked out” and goes to a life of petty crime, which attracts the attention of crime boss Hon Sam, and his background is revealed later. In The Departed, the scene fills in much of the exposition, while in Internal Affairs, the viewers have to fill in the details themselves.
In an early scene in both movies, the police find out about an illegal black market trade and both times, the mole inside the police tips them off, so that the crime boss gets away without a charge on his back. Both times, this tips off the higher ups that there is a mole in the other’s organization. One major change in Internal Affairs is that the entire gang is brought to the police station and both Hon and Wong allege that they know the other has a mole inside their organization and they will find them. No such confrontational scene exists in The Departed. Probably the scene, while tense, was considered too unbelievable to be put in the movie. Another scene in Internal Affairs but not in The Departed occurs directly after the montage at the Academy: Lau enters and tries to buy audio equipment from Chen, who runs a “hi-fi” store (this sets up Chen’s knowledge with audio equipment).
One of the biggest differences has to do with the supporting characters: In The Departed, Colin Sullivan (Damon) romances psychiatrist Madolyn Madden, who is assigned to be Billy Costigan's psychiatrist after his release from prison (DeCaprio). Sullivan eventually moves in with Madolyn. Madolyn has a confrontational relationship with Billy while his psychiatrist, but after she tells him she no longer wants to be his psychiatrist, she starts meeting Billy in secret, eventually having an affair with him late in the movie. Later on, Madolyn reveals to Billy that she is pregnant. In Infernal Affairs, Lau, the mole inside the police force, meets and moves in with his girlfriend Mary, a writer. Chen, the mole in the gang, on the other hand, meets with a psychiatrist named Dr. Lee Sum-yee and flirts with her, but she has no connections to anyone else in the movie. Chen also randomly meets ex-girlfriend May midway through the film with her daughter, and May lies about her daughter’s age because he doesn’t want Chen to know the daughter is his. In both versions, both Madolyn in the Departed and Mary in Infernal Affairs find out their boyfriend is a mole from a recording sent by the mole inside the gang. In Infernal Affairs, Mary leaves him after finding out. However, in the Departed, Madolyn attends Billy’s funeral and refuses to speak with Colin. The twist that Madolyn is romancing both moles in the Departed gives much more drama to both relationships. However, the interactions in Infernal Affairs are much more realistic and believable, with no connections in their romantic lives. While it didn’t change the plot very much, a supporting character not in Infernal Affairs is Staff Sergeant Dean Dignam, who is very confrontational and is quick to anger. He hates Colin Sullivan, the mole in the police force and makes his feelings well-known throughout the movie. He also gets into a fight with Billy, the mole in the gang, when during a meeting with him and Captain Queenan for information about the gang.
The final act of The Departed follows the actions of Infernal Affairs to the letter, from the police chief caught and thrown off a building, to another bust in which this time with the mole inside the police force pulling the strings to the crime boss will fail, to the mole in the gang being brought in, the mole in the gang finding out who the mole in the police force is, the former mole in the gang trying to arrest the mole in the police force, but the former mole is shot by another officer who used to be a mole in the police force. The mole in the police force shoots the other officer so no one knows his true identity. There is a funeral for the mole in the gang, giving him full honors.
However, there are numerous subtle differences during the climax between the two movies, and a big one at the ending. For example, in The Departed, Colin Sullivan, the mole inside the police force, finds out that the crime boss Frank Costello might be an informant to the FBI. Costello escapes during the bust gone wrong and is confronted, alone, by Sullivan, and Costello admits he was an FBI informant (which could expose Sullivan’s role in the police force). Costello aims his gun to shoot Sullivan but Sullivan volleys multiple shots at Costello. In Infernal Affairs, no type of FBI connection is brought up. Lau, the mole in the police force, also confronts Hon alone after the bust goes bad, but this time instead of confronting Hon about his secret connections, kills Hon, unarmed, to sever his connection with his old life completely. At the very end, in The Departed, after getting away scot-free from his crimes, Colin Sullivan enters his apartment and is shot dead by Dignam, who had prepared to get away clean. The last shot is of a rat crawling along the outside of Colin’s apartment. However, Infernal Affairs ends at the funeral, where Lau gets away scot-free. He salutes Chen and wishes he would have taken a different route in life. The endings in the two movies emphasize different things: In The Departed, there was no way for Colin to miss his comeuppance. Even though he killed all of the people who would have reported him, in the end, he was done in by another officer who hated him, Dignam. The rat symbolized Sullivan’s life as a “rat” for the gang, not a true police officer by any measure. In Infernal Affairs, Lau gets a personal victory, he is seen a respected police officer and gets away with crimes as a informer to the gang and a murderer, but at the expense of his innocence and his soul. A reference is made to a level in Hell in Buddhism called Avici, where one endures suffering incessantly, without end. In fact, the literal English translation is “The Unceasing Path,” which refers to Avici. While Lau lived, he nevertheless was in his own private hell of Avici, dealing with the choices he made to keep his position as respected police officer.
Both movies excel with two aspects: the destruction of the soul of Colin and Lau, the mole inside the police force, and the eventual breakdown and moral clarity of Chen and Billy, the mole in the gang. Both the Departed and Infernal Affairs’ basic plot are the same, but the differences show how each film was tailored each countries’ audience, such as the Hong Kong ending where Lau lives but suffers through his own private hell, or the American ending where Sullivan gets his comeuppance for his actions as a rat no matter how hard he tries to tie up all the loose ends. The Departed and Infernal Affairs are both excellent movies which depict the costs of living double lives, with different ways and different emphasis on telling their stories.