I recently came across Smartling, a translation software company, which got me thinking about language and foreign remakes of films. American remakes of foreign films usually have a bad reputation for being unnecessary, redundant and sometimes just downright awful-but I wondered if there were any American remakes that were actually good, perhaps even great, and a homage to the original foreign film it was based from.

It’s strange for me to think about a time when film was completely silent. Language, in my opinion, is essential to great film, not just for telling the story but for communicating and connecting with the audience. Language can help develop characters by the choice of words different characters use, and can set the overall tone for the film. If it’s a film with a lot of swearing, it’s probably safe to assume it’s not going to be a lighthearted and cheerful children’s film!

Unfortunately, a lot of people are reluctant to watch films with subtitles. Perhaps for some people, it makes it harder for them to truly immerse themselves in a foreign film, and this is perhaps why so many great foreign films go unheard of in mainstream western culture. Personally, I love watching even English language films with subtitles because as a writer I like to catch everything a character is saying. Subtitles are a great way for me to be able to experience film from every culture I choose- however sometimes I do find myself wishing I could speak the language and immerse myself in the film completely.

I suppose for this reason, American remakes (no matter how bad) can be a good thing for people who otherwise wouldn’t watch the original foreign film. Remakes also tend to give a new twist to the original idea, and it’s interesting to see how the difference of setting and language can make for a new interpretation of the same story.

One of my favorite films, The Departed, is actually a remake of a Hong Kong crime thriller, Infernal Affairs. Brad Pitt was one of the producers on the film and bought the rights from Media Asia to remake the original film (fun fact for you there…)
The Departed, directed by the great Martin Scorsese, stars an amazing array of actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and many more. The 2006 film was a commercial and critical success, winning awards such as Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars. But are you really surprised? When does Scorsese ever make a bad film!?

So how do both films compare?

Like the 2006 remake, Infernal Affairs was also critically acclaimed for it’s original and unique plot, and it’s fast paced story telling style. It tells the story of a police officer secretly working for a ‘triad’ (a branch of Chinese organised crime) and the story of another police officer who infiltrates it.
The plot of The Departed is of course similar; a gangster is placed as a mole in the Massachusetts State Police department and at the same time the police assign undercover state trooper in the gangster’s crew.

What I think is the best part about both films, is each has it’s own ‘breed’ of crime specific to the setting. In Infernal Affairs, the organised crime ‘Triad’ operates across boarders and continents and in The Departed, the Irish-American gangsters are actually based from famous gangsters and even a real corrupt FBI agent.

One thing I notice which is perhaps most drastically different when comparing both films is the violence. The Departed is much more brutal, bloody and raw- whereas Infernal Affairs favors style and slick camera shots over violence.

You can see the difference in each films inclusion of violence here, in this short rooftop scene- (Possible spoilers)

I prefer The Departed for the recurring theme of extreme and bloody violence, perhaps because I’m a bit sick in the head, but also because it gives a different feel to the overall tone of the film. The Departed is a gritty and brazen viewing experience, where Infernal Affairs has a more polished and ‘clean’ almost action movie feel.

The other great aspect about The Departed is the character development. With almost an additional hour added to the running time of Infernal Affairs, there is more time to really get to know the characters and even include a love triangle between both ‘rats’. The slang and the accents the characters have also really help to make the film and characters more engaging- it feels real and authentic and takes the film that one level deeper.

In contrast, with Infernal Affairs, the subtitles can only express so much. If the characters are using slang, the subtitles probably will change those words for ones more understandable, and as I don’t speak the language or know much of the culture, some things for me will probably, sadly, go over my head. Therefore the film as a complete experience for me is probably hindered slightly in this way- but overall, Infernal Affairs is a great police thriller with an interesting, innovative plot essentially about the struggle of finding and losing your identity.

Writing this post has actually opened my eyes to how interesting it is to watch different interpretations of the same plot or premise. It’s great to see how films made in different countries in different languages can also add their own flair to a story line and make it a completely different experience for the audience. But, one thing I wonder, if you don’t speak the language or know the culture- can you ever truly appreciate a foreign film for what it is?

Are there any films you’d like to see in a different language or setting? Tell me in the comments below!

-And I’ll leave you with my favorite scene from The Departed, showing Scorsese’s love of contrasting violence with fast paced, upbeat songs.


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