Over the last few years, Hong Kong has really wrestled the crown away from South Korea when it comes to producing the best crime thrillers in the world. Infernal Affairs sparked a slew of amazing, gritty films in Hong Kong, and with the recent decline in quality of South Korean films of the same nature (although The Chaser may have been an indication of a resurgence), Hong Kong is the place to go if you enjoy this type of cinema. Just in the past 3 years we’ve gotten Mad Detective and Exiled, two films that I already consider to be classics, and now Derek Yee’s Protégé can be added with those two as one of the best.
Nick (Daniel Wu) is a seasoned police officer who 7 years ago was assigned the task to go undercover and infiltrate Hong Kong’s heroin trade. He’s been working for Quin (Andy Lau), one of HK’s most prolific drug traffickers. Quin sees the drug trade as nothing more than a money-making business, and turns a blind eye to the actual damage it’s doing to the populations in which he deals. Quin is growing old, and his kidneys are failing, thus he’s looking to step down as head of his organization and is seeking a protégé. Without an heir (he only has daughters), he considers Nick for the position, as he’s given him 7 great years of loyal service.
Nick meanwhile believes he’s going to be pulled from the operation soon, but his superiors think becoming the heir to the business is the only way that he’ll finally meet the suppliers and the bigger men working behind the scenes. He agrees to do so for the betterment of the bureau, but the devastation that drugs can do smacks him in the face when he encounters Fan (Zhang Jing Chu), a down-on-her-luck single mother that lives next door to him. He sparks up a relationship with her, but soon finds out that she’s addicted to the very drug Quin manufactures. With drugs now involved in nearly every facet of his life, Nick goes deeper and deeper undercover, even going so far as to change the very way the organization delivers their goods…but it could come at a great cost.
While the themes and basic plot of Protégé don’t exactly set it apart from its brethren, the stunning performances, expertly plotted script, and excellent directing do. It’s pretty tough to craft a film in which the emotions the director intends the viewer to feel actually translate over well, but Derek Yee does so flawlessly. You will feel the plight of the characters on screen, and it’s remarkable that all of the characters, even the “bad” ones, have so many rich layers about them that you’ll discover yourself feeling for them as well, flaws and all. Without the highly effective emotional elements on display within the film, I doubt it would have been nearly as powerful or potent.
The drug trafficking theme of the film is very reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic; however Protégé isn’t nearly as morality-laden. Just as I mentioned the “bad” characters having qualities about them that will make you feel for them, the “good” characters have equal parts that will make you despise them. No adult here is completely innocent or above anyone else. The only pure innocence in the film comes in the form of Fan’s daughter. In fact, she plays somewhat of a “salvation” role in the film, being the one brass-ring that some of the characters can reach for to better themselves. Seeing her walk up to Fan, pull a needle out of her arm while she’s in a heroin-induced stupor, and throw it in the trashcan is truly heartbreaking, and quite a good metaphor about the driving message behind the entire film.
Just as I mentioned that the film wouldn’t have been as good without the powerful emotional elements, all of it wouldn’t have worked so well without top-notch performances, and the entire cast delivers in spades. Going in, I thought this was going to be Andy Lau’s show, but it surprisingly isn’t. As awesome as he is as the aging drug dealer Quin, this is a Daniel Wu vehicle, and he drives this ship spectacularly. His character of Nick is immensely layered and Wu pulls it off incredibly. By the end of the film you’ll feel like you know him inside-out. The real revelation here is Zhang Jing Chu’s role of the heroin-addicted Fan. I’d only seen Chu in Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords, and the role gave no indication of how good an actress she is; her daily internal struggle is completely believable. Also worth noting is Fan’s daughter in the film (her name I can’t locate), who is a great little actress. Hopefully being a child star in Hong Kong isn’t as much of a kiss of death as it is in the United States, as she looks to have a promising career ahead of her if she so chooses.
Derek Yee shows what a wonderful director he is here, with some great stylistic flourishes that permeate throughout the film. The outside shots of the apartment building, with sinister clouds looming over the building are outstanding. Likewise, the action scenes are pulled off with real grace. One of the more notable scenes, where the drug cooker’s kitchen is raided, is skillfully realized, and is infused with more dark humor, tension, and “wow” moments than some films have in their entire runtime. Yee shows heaps of confidence in directing this style of film, and I hope to see more films like this from him in the future.
Protégé certainly isn’t going to change the face of the Hong Kong crime film scene, but it sure as hell is among the best of the recent crop of offerings. The story is nothing new, but the phenomenal performances and first-rate directing elevate the film to the top of the genre heap. If you enjoy these type of films, Protégé is a must see.
Dragon Dynasty does a bang-up job with their Special Collector’s Edition release of Protégé. The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and it looks quite excellent. The transfer is progressive, and since this film is less than two years old, there’s no print damage to speak of. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound is available in both the original Cantonese and a dubbed English track. I watched the film in Cantonese, and the rear speakers got a nice workout during the more action-oriented scenes, although the film is much more of a drama/thriller, so don’t expect a complete sound showcase. The removable English subtitles (also available in Spanish) were relatively free of any glaring errors.
The quintessential Bey Logan commentary track kicks off the extras, and it’s filled to the gills with the usual enthusiastically-delivered information. Featurette’s include a half-hour making of, and in-depth interviews with stars Daniel Wu and Zhang Jing Chu, and producer Peter Chan respectively. Lots of good information can be gathered here, including finding out that actual drug addicts were interviewed to get the portrayal of addiction in the film as spot-on as possible. Seems like the message of the film even hit dead-center with everyone involved as well. The disc is rounded off with the film’s original theatrical trailer. This release does the film proud, and comes highly recommended.
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