The Hong Kong crime movie genre has another worthy addition to its collection, hot off the heels of the Infernal Affairs creative team's Confession of Pain. While movies of the genre of late are almost always gearing toward sophistication, Protégé plays out its story in surprisingly straight forward fashion, although the characters are draped in shades of grey. What makes the movie compelling, are the relationships formed between the principle characters.
If any synopsis suggests anything complex in the cops-and-robbers treatment of its key characters, it sure didn't play out that way. Daniel Wu is Nick, an undercover cop spending the last 7 years working for Andy Lau's "Banker", one of the top drug lords in HK. Ill health has forced Banker to look for a successor, and as all crime lords without natural heirs go, it sure is difficult to trust an outsider to takeover the business without stabbing you in the back. In fact, instead of Asian superstar Andy Lau, Protégé as the name implies, is actually a Daniel Wu vehicle, as we see events unfold through his eyes, and in two concurrent threads. The first being his contacts with the suppliers, and the second, his personal relations from someone who is part of the demand pool. If you were to add an additional dimension, his allegiance with the law enforcers serves as a minor subplot. No wonder Nick is one confused chap!
In contrast to the slick production look of its peers, Protégé turned out rather grimy, in deliberate fashion, as much of the time we're stuck in the doldrums of society, the ready market of those willing to abuse drugs for that quick fix in escaping their woes. And it is in this part of society that we spend much of our time in. Nick befriends a single mom played by Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu, who is a drug junkie, unable to break out of her habit, try as she might. They form a reluctant friendship, more because of the fact that Nick takes pity on Jing-jing the little girl, the innocent sufferer of her mom's ineptness to break out of addiction.
Written and directed by Derek Yee, Protégé covers the whole spectrum of the heroin supply chain, from the farmers right down to the individual junkie, and examines the concerns of each layer. It's basically a roadmap 101 to drug production, with loads of cash to be made, especially for those willing to take big risks in dealing, trafficking and producing. It's a showcase on the drug operations, with its low tech, high manpower operations in the extensive network of runners, and its compartmentalization of roles and responsibilities. You can't but be impressed by how things are run, akin to any large organization, only clandestine, led by businessmen in it for the money, with warped morals and a sense of being the bridge for sellers to satisfy demand.
Despite top billing for Anita Yuen and Louis Koo, they actually have only bit parts in the movie, the former as the pregnant wife of Banker, and the latter as yet another junkie, husband to Zhang Jingchu's Jane. Somehow, with the audience I'm with, Louis Koo seems to be the one drawing in the laughter, perhaps for his general wardrobe and make up in the movie. Zhang Jinchu's performance managed to highlight the plight that junkies go through, in either trying to resist their urges, or succumbing to temptation, and the natural willingness to lie their way, even sell their souls, just for that quick fix. It's one thing to show compassion and trying to help, but totally a different ball game altogether as professional and sustained rehabilitation seems the only way to go. Hers and Louis' roles are probably to send out strong anti-drug messages.
On the other hand, Andy Lau's role, although muted in some ways, seem to want to endear him to audiences, with his character's penchant for candy, and all round nice family man. Never one who spends extravagantly on home turf, you'll probably not even suspect he's the head honcho of a multi-million dollar syndicate. And it is this harmless facade, that complicates Nick's relationship with his mentor, should he embark on following through with his mission. The mentor unreservedly showing you the ropes, making you a rich man in the process, and that his family takes a liking for you as well, but as the undercover, how could you draw the line, especially when its dealing with human emotions, of deep friendship, trust, and betrayal?
Daniel Wu played his role really well, and I'm surprised that he's super charismatic here, holding his own against Lau by playing the many facades of Nick excellently. His role too offers a comparison between members from both sides of the law, of trust and loyalties amongst those in the force, albeit from another division, who spare no hesitation in using him for personal glory, and contrasted against the unwritten law of brotherhood, anonymity and trust of those in the illicit business.
One of the biggest movies hitting screens in Asia during this Chinese New Year period, it won't be difficult for Protégé to make a killing at the box office, given its powerful, engaging storyline which doesn't complicate, and the star-studded cast. As Raintree Pictures had a hand in co-producing the movie, expect to see one scene shot here, which reiterates our long no-nonsense approach to drug traffickers.
P.S. While I'm quite surprised at the many cinematically detailed instruction of drug production and drug use that remained intact in the version shown here, what was snipped instead was a sexy scene (damn!). What gives? Yes, so besides having to watch this movie dubbed in Mandarin, it's an edited version to boot.