Protégé (2007): Hong Kong – directed by Tung-Shing Yee
Rated R by the MPAA – contains drug content, some violence, some sexual content, and some disturbing thematic elements
Protégé follows in the style of Hong Kong cop films like Infernal Affairs, with a hint of the melodrama that John Woo added to most of his Hong Kong movies. Except that here the sadness and melancholy are oftentimes brutal and difficult to swallow. Protégé follows an undercover narc, Nick (played by Daniel Wu), as he attempts to work his way higher in the drug organization headed by Lin Quin (played by Andy Lau, who, incidentally, was in Infernal Affairs). Nick’s supervisor wants him to remain undercover long enough to unearth the supplier of the gang in order to take down the entire group. Nick doesn’t mind; he doesn’t have much else going for him.
He sees the effects of the drugs on his neighbor Jane (Jingchu Zhang), a young woman who has hidden from her husband with her young daughter. She’s a junkie, blaming her husband for getting her started. Unfortunately, her daughter Jane-Jane is probably the cutest little girl to grace a movie screen in quite some time. She is also quite the little actress, provoking a very strong emotional reaction every time her mother’s drug problem cause the small family to go hungry. This is how Nick first gets involved; Jane asks to borrow some food and proceeds to stuff bread into both of their mouths. The scene is rather moving as Nick struggles to deal with her problems, keep the kid alive, and still maintain his ruse as an up and coming drug dealer.
The movie switches back and forth between Nick’s advancement in the organization and his dealings with Jane. Both are compelling stories, though at times the narrative struggles slightly with pacing and stays on one story for too long. The primary plot is the drug organization which shows the ins and outs of the trade. Quin is careful to keep each part of the organization separate. The kitchen people don’t get involved with the warehouse people, and they don’t mess with the runners. No one meets the supplier except for Quin. And herein lies Nick’s challenge. Quin is dying slowly from diabetes and is eager to pass his business on, and Nick is able to prove himself trustworthy enough to take over.
The films makes the audience sympathize a great deal with Quin as he attempts to maintain and prosper his business. At times the movie grows nostalgic of the good old days, when heroin was the primary drug of choice and Ecstasy was relatively unknown. I was reminded of how films like The Wild Bunch reminisce about the Wild West. Some of this is a little unnerving, as we’re not sure if this is an anti-drug movie or a pro-drug film. In the end it works out satisfactorily, but nothing comes easily to any of the characters. Jane-Jane is the emotional heart of the film. Any choices Nick makes eventually play out with her in mind and she even proves to be an unlikely saviour.
From a technical aspect the film is outstanding. Made on a modest budget it has all the bells and whistles of an expensive Hollywood crime drama. Intriguing scenes of drug drops and tailing cars, the kitchen where they cook the drugs, the poppy fields in Thailand; everything looks amazing. There are certain directorial flourishes as well, including an interesting scene where cuts are made as though each is a picture on the side of a rotating cube. The sky, too, flying above the city in certain scenes invokes an impressive atmosphere. The acting is superb all around; the scenes of hard drug use are especially difficult.
Overall Protégé is a solid cop/crime flick with high production values. The plot and pacing could have been tightened up a bit, but other than that I don’t have many complaints. Some of the themes presented are shown to be pretty complex but the film seems to still make them a little simpler than they actually are. Fans of Hong Kong cinema and/or undercover cop movies should definitely check it out. Fans of world cinema and crime movies in general will also find it a worthwhile experience.