Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" and the Buddhist concept of Hell

The Mandarin is a bit of an awards show junkie, so he was curled up in front of the TV last night watching the Golden Globe awards. (His excuse was that it was business related, since the Mandarin’s day job is somewhat related to the entertainment industry.)

During the show, one of the presenters mentioned that William Monahan, who wrote the script for Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” based his script on Siu Fai Mak’s original screenplay for the 2002 classic Hong Kong film, “Internal Affairs.”

At that point, the Mandarin switched back to “Mandarin mode.” Because she got it wrong, a mistake the Mandarin has noticed too often in reviews and discussions of Scorsese’s excellent film. The English title of the original film was “Infernal Affairs,” with an “f.” And the Mandarin being the Mandarin, prepare yourself for the explanation.

The basic plot setup of both films is the same: two young police academy graduates are chosen for dangerous undercover assignments. One is assigned by the head of Internal (with a “t”) Affairs to be convicted of a crime, go to prison, and infiltrate a major crime family. The other is secretly already connected to that crime family and is assigned by its head to infiltrate the police hierarchy. Each becomes a mole in the other’s organization and neither knows of the other’s role. Years pass (ten years in the original) and each group begins to suspect they are penetrated by a “mole” from the other. The irony sharpens when each mole is assigned to discover the identity of their opposite number.

The Chinese title of the original film is 無間道, Mou gaan dou in Cantonese. (It is Wu jian dao in Mandarin, but because the original film is in Cantonese, the Mandarin will use Cantonese here.) Dou 道 (rhymes with "no") is the usual word for “road.” Mou gaan, literally “without gaps,” or “uninterrupted,” is an abbreviation of mou gaan dei yuk 無間地獄, a translation of the Sanskrit Buddhist term avīcinakara, the “endless hell.”

Unlike popular Christianity, with its one hell where souls suffer for eternity, popular Buddhism has over a hundred different hells. Some are cleverly designed on the principle that the punishment should fit the crime, for example one where gluttons suffer in a hell that is a perpetual banquet where they cannot eat anything because their mouths are too small for even a crumb of food to enter. There are sixteen principal hells, eight “cold,” and eight “hot.” Mou gaan dei yuk is the eighth and lowest, or “hottest” of the hot hells.

Most Buddhist hells are different from the Christian hell in one key way: after a period of suffering sufficient to compensate for their bad karma (“deeds”), souls reenter the cycle of rebirth and have another chance to live a better life on the path to nirvāna (imagine a dot under the second “n”), or enlightenment. In this way, Buddhist hells are more like the Catholic Purgatory. Once their punishment ends, the Catholic soul in Purgatory goes to Heaven and the Buddhist soul in hell is reborn on Earth.

All except souls in the mou gaan hell. Among those hundreds of Buddhist hells, this one is the real Hell. The meaning of mou gaan dei yuk, or avīcinakara, is “the hell without any interval (of rebirth).” The soul in the mou gaan hell effectively never gets out: the instant they are reborn, they end up right back where they were: in hell. Sort of like Michael Corleone’s famous line from “The Godfather, Part III:” “Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in.”

This concept of endless, unremitting hell is why, despite the prominent role of police internal affairs in the story, the Chinese title is translated “Infernal Affairs,” as in Dante’s “Inferno.” The Chinese title means simply, “The Road to Hell.” The English title is a clever play on words.

For the Mandarin to explain in detail how the concept of the mou gaan hell works itself out in the plot would spoil the film, but those of you loyal Mandarin readers who have seen it will understand.

As a final footnote (the Mandarin never met a footnote he didn’t like), there is also another – unintentional? -- play on words in the title. The intended reading of the title is “The Road (dou) to Hell (mou gaan).” The words mou gaan dou can also be read as “the uninterrupted (mou gaan) path (dou),” which translates another Buddhist Sanskrit term: ānantayamārga, the uninterrupted path to nirvāna, in which all impediments are removed in one lifetime and no further rebirths are needed before the soul achieves enlightenment.

It seems to the Mandarin that this contradiction of opposites, a phrase (mou gaan dou) that can mean both the road to endless torment in the mou gaan hell, and the short path to enlightenment, is actually a symmetry of opposites. It mirrors the theme of the movie, a kind of cinematic analog of the ubiquitous Yin-Yang symbol. The black of the crime family and the white of the internal affairs officers, locked in a rotating cycle of eternal interdependence. And in each half, a tiny kernel of the other, the “mole” of the opposite color, at its center.

And who knew all those long afternoons in Professor Chi's graduate seminar in "Chinese Buddhist Literature" back at Indiana University in the 1970s would bear such unlikely fruit thirty years later: an on-line movie review. Must be the Mandarin's karma.


Fancy Dirt said...

Excellent post.
I've wondered if this life is one of those hells. There always seems to be a lot of suffering going on on this planet. And lots of difficult spiritual work for some.

"The soul in the mou gaan hell effectively never gets out: the instant they are reborn, they end up right back where they were..." Ironic for me to read today, because Savant fears sleep and has wondered if this is happening to him. Dying and opening his eyes to find himself in the same place. Hell, God's punishment for killing himself. He's not convinced he's alive.

Then you present it's partner meaning "the uninterrupted path to nirvāna". Wow! Too bad you aren't here to expand on my pitiful attempts to answer some of the questions he asks.

Love your photo, Big Brother. I grabbed it and put it in one of my photo files.

The Mandarin said...

When I took that photo out of the old frame from our grandmother's belongings, I found the one of you that I sent you the other day inside the frame.

I hope savant "wakes up" ("Buddha" means "the one who woke up")- without a shared concept of what is real and what isn't, things can get pretty disorienting.