JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

There are of course many differences between the Hong Kong film and its U.S. remake, but broader issues of cross-cultural adaptation and transnational circulation are beyond the scope of this essay.[28] [open notes in new window] Neither is it my intent to offer a close reading of either Infernal Affairs or The Departed.[29] Instead, as highlighted earlier, my focus in this essay is upon the spectator’s experience of these films. Thus, I wish to consider two scenes in particular in The Departed that diverge from their corresponding scenes in Infernal Affairs in ways that an Asian American spectator might find significant.

Ed S. Tan, drawing upon the work of psychologist Nico Frijda, writes that

“emotion regulates the interaction between the individual and the environment in that it is directed toward the realization of what is of importance to the individual, that is, his or her concerns.”[30]

More succinctly, Plantinga defines emotions as “concern-based construals.” He outlines seven different categories of emotions that come into play during the viewing of a film, distinguished mostly by their duration (global vs. local) and their objects (narrative content, characters, spectator responses, film as a constructed artifact).[31]

My argument is that in these two scenes from The Departed, Asian American spectators, due to their unique epistemological perspective, in Alcoff’s terms, or even just heightened sensitivity as Yancy puts it, might experience a different set of “concern-based construals” than other spectators. Surely not all Asian American spectators will take note of the exact same elements of the scenes. My focus here is race but a spectator’s disposition consists of much more than his or her racial identity. At the same time, Asian Americans may be more likely than other spectators to find certain elements of the film significant.

In the first scene, the police are presented with an opportunity to apprehend the head of the criminal gang in the process of illegal dealings. In Infernal Affairs, this involves Thai drug traffickers who arrive at a nondescript apartment building to sell cocaine to gang boss Sam (Eric Tsang) as the police monitor their activities from a building across the street. Although the Thai men dress and look different from the Chinese with whom they do business, their relationship appears to be a friendly one, with the men greeting each other warmly and joking about the weather.[32] The suspense of the scene comes from the moves and countermoves executed by the police and the criminal gang in their mutual attempts to outplay the other side, with spectators deriving considerable satisfaction from seeing the undercover policeman’s clever use of Morse code as a means of communication.

In The Departed, the scene in question alternates between a warehouse, where the gang boss Frank Costello (Nicholson) has arranged to meet Chinese buyers for his stolen microprocessors, and an off-site surveillance center, where the police are monitoring the deal. There is a much more adversarial relationship between the business partners than in Infernal Affairs, and although the opening of the scene in The Departed pits the police against the criminals, much of the suspense of the scene derives from the confrontation between Costello’s gang and the Chinese in the warehouse.

The Chinese buyers initially appear as silent, shadowy, sinister figures stationed throughout the warehouse, lit and filmed in a manner that depicts them as threatening and capable of great violence. As Costello and his gang arrive on the scene, a bilingual Asian American man who acts as a translator informs Costello that at least two of the Chinese are carrying machine guns. The leader of the Chinese then inexplicably begins yelling in Cantonese and gesticulating forcefully. His words are not translated in their entirety either within the film or through subtitles. Costello responds by critiquing the behavior of the Chinese in terms of how things are done “in this country,” beginning with the fact that automatic weapons “don’t add inches to your dick.”

The camera is placed in between the two sides with alternating medium close-ups of Costello and the unnamed Chinese boss, situating the spectator as a neutral third-party observer, witness to the escalating tension of the encounter. Costello’s tirade continues as he goes from calling the buyers “Chinamen,” to “Bruce Lee and the karate kids,” to “Chinks.” It then climaxes as he demands payment for the goods by launching one final insult at the Chinese: “No tickee, no laundry,” a derogatory reference to nineteenth-century Chinese laundrymen. The police, meanwhile, have been rendered nearly irrelevant, relegated to the role of uninformed bystanders due to their hasty and ineffective surveillance set-up in the warehouse.

The narrative purpose of this sequence for both films is to place the criminals in direct confrontation with the police, and thus challenge the two main characters to do their jobs without giving away their true identities. While both films accomplish this goal, for Asian American spectators, The Departed includes an added point of significance that has to do with their possible association with the objects of Costello’s derision. The Chinese buyers are merely the other party in the criminal transaction and thus arguably not intended to elicit much emotion at all from spectators, though Costello’s behavior towards them may bring forth feelings of disapproval, surprise, or shock; it is not often these days in U.S. popular culture that one hears such overt expressions of anti-Asian racism, and the reference to Chinese laundrymen is surprisingly anachronistic.

Yet those spectators who may have been subject to epithets such as “Chinamen,” “karate kid,” or “Chink” at some point in their lives, or who have an awareness of their vulnerability to such incidents, may feel the force of Costello’s insults differently from other spectators. Although a spectator’s particular Asian ethnicity might affect her sense of such epithets, as the ones in the film primarily reference Chinese people, Asians in the United States have frequently been lumped into one group in that “Chink” or “Jap” or “gook” as much as “Oriental” have all been aimed indiscriminately at anyone with an Asian face.[33] For Asian American spectators, a recognition of their shared racial embodiment with the characters on the screen has the potential to elicit emotions that have to do with Asian American spectators’ place, along with the Chinese buyers, within the racial hierarchy of the United States.[34]

Plantinga asks the question, “To what extent does spectator allegiance vary with spectator difference”?[35] By “allegiance,” he means Murray Smith’s theorization of the term. According to Smith, allegiance is one of three levels of a spectator’s engagement with a film’s characters, situated between recognition and alignment. Allegiance “pertains to the moral and ideological evaluation of characters by the spectator” on the basis of which “spectators construct moral structures, in which characters are organized and ranked in a system of preference.”[36] Plantinga’s version of the concept includes the possibility that spectators might feel an allegiance to characters for reasons that have little to do with morality, for example on the basis of a shared racial or ethnic identity, or a preference for the underdog or a familiar star.[37]

In regards to The Departed, do Asian American spectators grant allegiance to the Chinese because of their shared racial identity? I think not, as the Chinese buyers are such minor characters, with so little screen time and without names or (translated) dialogue, that it is difficult to imagine that they would generate allegiances of any kind. Furthermore, the Chinese give little indication of comprehending the import of Costello’s words, whether due to lack of proficiency in the English language or lack of cultural familiarity with his references, so the feelings of the spectators are neither for nor with the Chinese buyers, who appear relatively unaffected by the encounter. The emotions that I am suggesting might arise from this scene are therefore not those of racially-based alignment or allegiance between Asian American spectators and the Chinese buyers. If only racially embodied spectatorship were so simple! I suggest, instead, that Asian American spectators are not engaging with these characters solely as characters within the film, but rather in relation to what their representation within the scene signifies within a culture of racial inequality.

In an essay about Asian American identity, anti-Asian stigmatization, and self-evaluative emotions, philosopher David Haekwon Kim proposes that anti-Asian stigmatization creates a social situation within which Asian Americans potentially experience “shameability” and “self-contemnability,” terms he defines as “a distinctive vulnerability to being shamed or undergoing self-contempt.” He identifies the most important forms of anti-Asian stigma as, “1) the aesthetic devaluation of Asian faces and bodies, 2) the derogation of alleged Asian personality traits, especially in terms of passivity, non-individuality, and social ineptness, and 3) the derogation of alleged Asian foreignness, alienness, or being a FOB (Fresh Off the Boat).” Kim is careful to clarify that his argument is not that all Asian Americans suffer from racial shame or self-contempt, but rather that anti-Asian racism is a feature of the public order that has emotional effects upon Asian Americans.[38]

Suppose that Asian Americans are indeed more vulnerable to being shamed or undergoing self-contempt as a result of anti-Asian stigmatization. If Costello’s attitude towards the Chinese buyers reiterates the existing racial hierarchy in the United States, then Asian American spectators may respond to the scene with feelings of shame and self-contempt. Plantinga argues that films rarely elicit a sense of collective guilt or shame because viewers do not feel responsible for the actions of fictional characters, and indeed Asian American spectators are not likely to feel responsible for the Chinese buyers’ behavior.[39] However, the scene reaffirms that Asians can be seen and treated as a despised racial minority in the United States, and Asian American spectators in particular are especially aware that this treatment is not limited to the fictional world of the film.

As Kim suggests, shame

“might be a result of coming into a world in which one is in some sense a failed or diminished subject well before arriving in it, precisely like the situation faced by the racially stigmatized. When this is the case, the lowered view of the self is not the result of considerations of flawed agency but of flawed being.”[40]

Such self-evaluative emotions of shame and self-contempt require an internalization of anti-Asian stigmatization. For those spectators who explicitly challenge anti-Asian stigmatization, the emotions elicited by the scene may be turned outwards, towards the characters or situation in the film, or even toward the filmmakers. Costello, for example, may be viewed with even more intense antipathetic emotion, with hatred instead of mere disapproval for example, as his words rebound upon the spectator’s own sense of self. Asian Americans who are firmly invested in their American identities may feel contempt towards the Chinese buyers, for confirming “alleged Asian foreignness” and for actually being FOBs. (This response would have the paradoxical effect of affirming Costello’s perspective.) Asian Americans who identify more strongly with an ethnic rather than a racial identity might take note of the representation yet consider it relevant only to Chinese Americans.

Whatever emotions any given individual Asian American spectator experiences in response to this scene, Asian American spectators as a group find themselves implicated in the onscreen interaction in ways that other spectators are not. Each of the responses outlined above moves beyond the world of the film. These are not “direct emotions,” which have to do with the spectator’s engagement with the unfolding narrative, nor just “sympathetic or antipathetic emotions,” related to the spectator’s feelings about the characters within the film, but rather what Plantinga calls “meta-emotions” and “artifact emotions.”[41]

“Meta-emotions” are emotions whose object is the spectator’s own responses or those of other spectators, while “artifact emotions” derive from some response to the film as a constructed artifact. The example Plantinga gives of a meta-emotion is crying at a sentimental scene, and then feeling embarrassed about having cried.[42] In this scene from The Departed, Asian American spectators might initially respond with emotions elicited by the recognition of their own vulnerability to racist sentiments. Having one’s racial identity highlighted in this manner may be described as akin to being frozen in place with a spotlight shining upon one’s dark hair, slanted eyes, and yellow skin. The feelings such attention elicits can range from embarrassment to indignation to alarm. Such emotions, which derive from a larger cultural context of anti-Asian stigma, then lead to further felt consequences, from meta-emotions of anger, frustration, or resignation to shame or self-contempt.

Examples of artifact emotion, according to Plantinga, include “exhilaration at a particularly brilliant camera movement, disdain for a hackneyed screenplay, anger at the seeming contempt the filmmakers have for the audience, or admiration for the excellence of a film.”[43] For those spectators who have knowledge of the frequent representation of Asian characters in U.S. films as targets of condescension and loathing, The Departed’s representation of the Chinese buyers may elicit the artifact emotions of anger, frustration, indignation, disappointment, or resignation. Narratively speaking, there is little rationale for the racial or national identity of the buyers in this scene; not much in the story would have changed if the buyers were French or Russian, for example. Perhaps Scorsese intended the Chinese gangsters as an intertextual reference to the world of Hong Kong action films, but in the context of an U.S. setting and within the history of Hollywood cinema, the intertextual frame equally recalls the depiction of Asians as stereotypical stock characters, such as gangsters.

Aside from the scene in the warehouse, there is one other scene in The Departed that explicitly triggers the recognition of how the filmmakers have deliberately chosen to use “Asian” as a signifier within the film. This second scene takes place at a movie theater, as the undercover policeman trails the criminal mole and nearly identifies him but for an inopportune cell phone ring. This is an intensely suspenseful scene in both films, with camerawork that repeats a pattern of following one man and then the other, and then including both men in the same frame in order to show how little distance separates the two. The scene in Infernal Affairs takes place at a generic theater showing what Gina Marchetti speculates is a film from the People’s Republic of China set in Mongolia or Tibet.[44] This setting allows the spectator to focus upon the action in Infernal Affairs, namely the excitement of the pursuit and the suspense of whether or not the undercover police agent will finally discover the identity of the criminal mole.

The Departed locates this scene in a porn theater in Chinatown and includes a more extended chase sequence in the neighboring environs. For many spectators familiar with U.S. popular culture, the mise-en-scène of the chase quite likely brings memories, whether conscious or unconscious, of scenes from other films and television shows set in the mysterious alleyways of “Chinatown,” that well-worn Hollywood set featuring some combination of opium dens, gambling, sex, and murder. The steam rising from the street vents, the barbecued ducks hanging in the shop windows, the exotic neon hieroglyphics casting their garish light upon the rain-slicked sidewalks… It all seems so familiar.[45]

Spectators acquainted with these signifiers may feel a sense of heightened mystery and danger based upon repeated exposure to similar settings and their associations with specific narrative scenarios. Such repetition, whose effects once again can be conscious or unconscious, might compound the excitement of the scene. But spectators who are more sensitive to the explicit use of such racialized tropes may feel critical of the filmmaker’s decision to rely upon such stereotypical representations of “Chinatown” as a space of violence. This type of awareness of the film as a constructed text leads once again to artifact emotions, feelings that in this case derive from a critical consciousness of the clichéd choice of Chinatown as a setting for the scene, without any apparent narrative rationale.

My focus upon two scenes from a two-and-a-half-hour film may seem rather narrow, but these scenes are emblematic of the way that Asians have been represented in U.S. cinema for over a century. Over and over again, in U.S. films that are often not even “about” Asians or Asian Americans, spectators are confronted with similar types of images. There are certainly many moments in Infernal Affairs when the viewing pleasure of an Asian American spectator may be challenged: the labor of reading subtitles, the unusually heightened melodrama of the relationship between the undercover cop and his superior officer, the remarkably chaste interactions between the undercover cop and the psychologist he is assigned to see. Yet given the homogenous racial makeup of the film’s actors, racial difference does not register as a factor, and American-style racism is nowhere to be seen.

You can always find roast duck hanging in the windows of Chinatown shops, even late at night after the shops are closed.  The mise-en-scène and cinematography of the Chinatown chase sequence in The Departed is reminiscent of many other chase sequences set in Chinatown in U.S. popular film and television. An elaborate mirrored hanging lantern reflects Billy’s face and Colin from the back. The lantern seems vaguely familiar—was there one in The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947), which was filmed in part in San Francisco’s Chinatown?

This is not to say that national, cultural, or other differences between the characters are insignificant. For spectators who are more knowledgeable about Hong Kong and its history and culture, or simply more familiar with Hong Kong cinema, some of the details that Marchetti discusses in her in-depth study of the Infernal Affairs trilogy may be very significant. The history of the song in the stereo shop scene, the tensions between the PRC and Hong Kong as expressed through characters and background events, the influence of the triads, or the role of Thailand in the regional drug trade may be quite meaningful for some spectators. But many Americans, including Asian Americans, will not be familiar enough with the cultural context or the cinematic tradition to understand such distinctions.

In a film set in the United States, it is much more difficult to depict a world where Asian embodiment, or any other form of racial difference, is not meaningful. The fact that the characters in The Departed express strong attitudes towards race, class, gender, and sexual identities is a strength of the film in many ways, part of a richly textured portrayal of white working class Bostonians. Yet the way in which the film orients itself around certain kinds of bodies and not others also makes itself felt by the spectator. In an analysis of the phenomenology of whiteness, Sara Ahmed writes,

“whiteness may function as a form of public comfort by allowing bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape. Those spaces are lived as comfortable as they allow bodies to fit in; the surfaces of social space are already impressed upon by the shape of such bodies.”[46]

Despite the fact that the world of a film is an imaginary or virtual one, in that it is a flickering image of light and shadow on a screen rather than the fully three-dimensional arena, this diegetic space is still shaped by the bodies within it.

In the all-Asian milieu of Infernal Affairs, Asian embodiment is the norm and racial difference is not at issue. Asian American spectators are free to be fully immersed in the suspense of the film, in its dramatic action sequences and its shocking denouement. In The Departed, where race is marked as a site of contestation, Asian embodiment and the Chinatown setting are depicted as foreign and distant, subject to or spaces of violence and abuse. While the experience of seeing a film like The Departed may be quite familiar to Asian American spectators, it is hardly surprising that something like Infernal Affairs may be far more pleasurable.