Protégé (2007)

Written & directed by: Derek Yee
Producer: Peter Chan
Starring: Daniel Wu, Andy Lau, Zhang Jing-Chu, Louis Koo, Anita Yuen, Liu Kai-Chi, Tsei Tze-Tung & Derek Yee

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Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2008:
Best Supporting Actor (Andy Lau)
Best Editing (Kwong Chi-Leung)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2008:
Best Picture
Best Director (Derek Yee)
Best Screenplay (Derek Yee)
Best Actress (Zhang Jing-Chu)
Best Supporting Actor (Louis Koo)
Best Supporting Actress (Anita Yuen)
Best New Artist (Tsei Tze-Tung)
Best Cinematography (Venus Keung)
Best Art Direction (Hai Chung-Man & Jeff Mak)
Best Action Design (Chin Kar-Lok)
Best Original Film Score (Peter Kam)
Best Sound Design (Kinson Tsang)
Best Visual Effects (Ho Siu-Lun, Chow Kin-Hung & Ching Han-Wong)

Nominations at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2007:
Best Director (Derek Yee)
Best Original Screenplay (Derek Yee)
Best Supporting Actor (Louis Koo)

Undercover cop Nick (Daniel Wu) has managed to work himself up the ranks and up the ranks of trust that he's now one of the closest men of drug lord Quin (Andy Lau). Quin is even seriously considering having Nick replace him at the helm of his heroin smuggling organization. Nick's detached world view gets shaken a little bit when he brings neighbour Fan (Zhang Jing-Chu) into his arms along with her daughter. Fan is also hiding a heroin addiction from Nick and the fact that her husband (Louis Koo) is on the hunt for her. Not so much to hurt her but to share the drub burden along with her...

Predictably compared to Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, let's not be lazy but instead try and treat Hong Kong's take on the global drug problem like it's an individual product with individual goals. Since Derek Yee is writing, directing and even appearing in a supporting role, you should be able to expect a rousing image painted before you as well. But this sentence containing a but shouldn't mean true disappointment because little when using the drug-template can today resonate on a true original level. Instead, Protégé "only" gets the verdict of competence gathered up to lift Hong Kong cinema just a little bit up towards higher divisions again and that my friends matters more than speaking of new and fresh things.

As much as Yee's script is a Public Service Announcement and a guided tour of the do's and don't's behind its subject, it pretty neatly avoids being cloying or boring. His initial frames are about pounding though, with images of run down buildings and people looking like the end of the world had swept away all but them. Buttons are indeed seriously pushed, both in score and camerawork but it's pretty much the last time in the film we feel bothered by Yee's open behaviour. He begins planting a seed about what emptiness means in the context of our plot, a valid theme that has its place and gets a pay off but you again have to remember that this product oozes skill gathered rather than being the next, great chapter in the history of the world of cinema so don't expect to be seriously enlightened.

But rocking back and forth on my views like this speaks more of Yee's expected high standards normally and it's not a knock on the work that he churns out which is an atmospheric and often well-performed product..."only". The undercover hell that means Daniel Wu's Nick has to flip-flop between his made up lack of humanity and his actual humanity has an interesting foundation in the casting of the American born actor. Suitably detached and assured, the character of Nick is steered consciously away from any huge type of background which is a choice I understand and considering the places Yee takes Nick, we can live with this hole in the character arc. Trust is established, everyone's brothers in arms and Andy Lau's white haired Quin (that even gets hands on in the cooking up of heroin) is a refreshing role reversal for the veteran actor but also a representation of how weary some of our characters have become. Nick is several years into his undercover stint and on the brink of achieving a twisted sense of humanity due to twisted circumstances while Lau's Quin sees the business (which is just business he says) lean towards trends he's not ready to ride along with. His immediate family is growing up, they exhibit rebellious traits and new life is on its way. Yet Yee opts for large parts of the character gallery to head for a collision instead, between each other or within themselves.

It may seem overly nihilistic to see even good hearted people like Nick managing to cause destruction but however much he may take care of his drug addict neighbour Fan, he is part of her path of doom undoubtedly. An important point to make is the lack of glamour in the proceedings and the lack of viewer protest against Yee's over the top nature to his statements. Statement that aren't about outbursts of melodrama, bothersome climactic speeches or extensive violence (the little there is, is thoroughly earth shattering however).

With expectedly terrific, big budget cinematography by Venus Keung and the likes of Andy Lau bringing the outmost competence of his to the table, Protégé may bring chops all round but oddly enough opens up some annoying holes in the framework. Performance-wise, lead Wu is more suited to be quiet and contemplating rather than handling big scenes with emotional confrontations but the biggest annoyance is the downplayed role of Anita Yuen as Quin's wife. Touching only extremely late upon her role in the family, it's a disservice to the framework and the actress who blossomed under Yee's direction in 1994's C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri. Lau's Quin is on the brink of being underwritten as well but receives a better pay off that creates a smokescreen that prevents us to fully question where character background might be hiding. We don't mind not knowing. Other plot points such as Fan's druggie husband played by Louis Koo is downright sloppily handled at times and Koo's make-up creates a "pretty actor take on ugly role"-performance that feels strained. For instance, Fan is deadly afraid she'll be found by her husband but her rationale is merely to move across the hall to Nick! But I can almost swallow that it's about the often poor rationale of the addict at play here and actress Zhang Jing-Chu certainly shows devotion in a rather age old part as written.

Protégé is highly welcome though because for certain streaks of time, Hong Kong cinema seems to revel in the fact that quick thoughts and quick shoots equals quick cash or acclaim but the likes of Derek Yee and Peter Chan has the right touch of professionalism that plays in favour of the cinema they've helped to mould over the years. It may not be a unique product within the Hong Kong circles or globally even but Yee's writing and direction is still pretty consistent. The expected message behind a drug fueled picture like Protégé is literally hammered home, competently as well and even presents a challenge. You don't find that consistently across the board of directors in Hong Kong.

The DVD:

Deltamac presents the film in an aspect ratio of 2.35.1 approximately, with anamorphic enhancement. No complaints here as transfer is made from a clean print that maintains a high sense of detail and sharpness.

Audio options are Cantonese Dolby Digital EX, Cantonese DTS ES and Mandarin Dolby Digital EX but as I'm not equipped with such a system, my assessment of this disc aspect will be left off this review. The sections in Thai are intact on the Mandarin track.

The English subtitles contains one or two instances of slightly poor grammar but read very well on the whole otherwise. Traditional Chinese subtitles are also included.

The 2 disc set begins its tour into extras territory on the second platter. Same subtitle options as the feature are thankfully offered up. Teaser trailer and the cinema trailer starts things off but we next come to the obligatory Making Of (15 minutes, 15 seconds). A standard program as far as these things go, Derek Yee and the actors are all interviewed, preaching about the valid message of the film, touching upon their characters, their individual research and there's some production info concerning the choice to shoot in Thailand. Short Version is exactly that, a 4 minutes, 54 second edit of the same program except that it contains a few more revealing behind the scenes shots.

Star Interviews (4 minutes, 24 seconds) contains brief sit downs with Andy Lau, Daniel Wu, Zhang Jing-Chu, Anita Yuen and Louis Koo. Material is repeated as the sessions were done for the Making Of and its brief nature doesn't create any additional depth compared to said program. Only new bits come from Anita Yuen as she was not part of the Making of as such. Coincidentally, she has the best behind the scenes nugget to speak of as she relates to how her pregnancy affected her acting.

About Drugs (3 minutes, 3 seconds) is molded out of the making of structure and focuses extremely little on drugs. In fact, we get basically the same interviews experienced twice before already. An animated Photo Gallery (6 minutes) finishes the thin release.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson