Derek Yee’s excellent crime thriller PROTÉGÉ, starring Daniel Wu as an undercover police officer on a seven-year assignment to take down a Hong Kong drug lord played by Andy Lau, makes its way to the U.S. in a quality DVD release from Dragon Dynasty (DD) that includes exclusive interviews with Wu, his female co-star Zhang Jing-chu and producer Peter Chan.
I’m going to do something a little different and start off with a review of the movie itself before launching into the DVD package. Before doing so it should be made clear that despite the misleading cover art which depicts Daniel Wu holding a gun and the gratuitous explosions seen in the background on the front and back, PROTÉGÉ is not your typical Hong Kong action movie. It has one very intense action sequence midway through but is otherwise a slow-boiling and complex thriller driven by well-developed plotting and characters, not action. With the past exception of the INFERNAL AFFAIRS trilogy, DD doesn’t release this sort of film and as good as it is, I wish they would stick to more genre-related fare because the distributor has put off releasing a lot of great action and martial arts classics that fans have been clamoring for.
PROTÉGÉ is a very sharp thriller from Derek Yee, a man once known as a leading action star at Shaw Brothers in hits like SHAOLIN PRINCE (1983) and RETURN OF THE SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN (1981). In recent years he has reinvented himself as a diverse filmmaker of unusual determination and creativity. PROTÉGÉ provides an excellent example by giving us an unusually sophisticated Hong Kong thriller that’s well developed, has great characters and a great finish.
Daniel Wu is Nick, an undercover cop who for the past seven years has worked his way inside of a Hong Kong heroin trafficking operation by cozying up to its leader Lin Quin (Andy Lau). We get to see in detail how the operation is run, from sourcing the drugs in Thailand to processing them in a lab for distribution on the street. While this is going on, Nick befriends his next door neighbor, a heroin-addicted woman named Jane (Zhang Jing-chu) who has a three or four-year-old daughter and a drug-crazed, deadbeat husband (Louis Koo).
Nick’s carefully laid plan of staying undercover as long as it takes to get both Lin and his suppliers is ultimately cut short by two factors. One involves a botched police raid on Lin’s chemical lab that casts suspicions on everyone involved in the drug ring. The other event involves Nick’s growing concern for the harm that heroin is causing on the streets as brought close to home by the deteriorating situation with Jane.
This action sequence, for which Chin Kar-lo earned a Hong Kong Film Award nomination, is brilliantly laid out in an almost humorous fashion but it’s played straight and it works. Liu Kai-chi, previously seen in KILL ZONE with Donnie Yen, is memorable as a corrupt narcotics task force leader so desperate to get a bust when he stumbles upon Nick that he leads his team into a disastrous impromptu raid where just about everything goes wrong. Police are struck with their own stray bullets. Liu has his hand severed by a hammer, yes a hammer. All of the criminals trying to flee the scene either fall to their deaths or escape. The whole scene is surreal yet taken in the broader context is realistic. Life is generally pretty mundane most of the time but every now and then something completely crazy and chaotic happens. As a filmmaker, Yee understands the dramatic potential of exploiting this in his movies and does so here very well.
The film ultimately has a very clear message that is effectively conveyed. Harvested from opium, heroin is a highly addictive drug that can make the life of an abuser miserable and the people who sell it have no empathy for the lives it destroys. Having known a former cocaine dealer who was on a work-release program I can substantiate the lack of moral concern on the part of at least one dealer. His only regret was doing something that ended up getting him in jail.
What Yee manages to do with this film is strip out a lot, but not all, of the romanticized depictions of drug dealers and cops assigned to bust them. Wu’s character is not a supercop and he doesn’t rely on anything other than his wits, a fair amount of luck and his moral obligation to see him through a difficult situation. He is even seduced by the corruption he comes so close to but in a refreshing turn, it’s not for obvious reasons of greed or vice. Lau gives a great performance that humanizes the villain of the movie and this makes the end more satisfying dramatically. At first, I thought Zhang Jing-chu was a little too attractive and put together to play the role of an out-of-control addict but she pulls it off with a strong performance that progressively becomes more believable and tragic.
Louis Koo is the odd man out in this movie. His performance as Zhang’s crazed husband is way over the top and more in line with what I would normally expect from a superficial Hong Kong treatment of drug abuse. Koo apparently did his own research by visiting drug clinics and observing patients and their behavior. If so, I think he should have taken better notes.
The rest of PROTÉGÉ is up to the high standards Yee was clearly shooting for. Production design is excellent with artful cinematography and detailed set design. Lots of varied location shooting and tight editing keeps the interest level and momentum up. Peter Kam’s score is muted and unobtrusive as it should be for a film like this.
This is the first film directed by Derek Yee that I have had the opportunity to see even though he has been periodically stepping behind the camera since the 1980s. If it’s representative of his other work, including ONE NITE IN MONGKOK with Daniel Wu and THE SHINJUKU INCIDENT with Jackie Chan, I’m definitely going to have to see more. Yee has what Hong Kong needs, a filmmaker with the drive to put more prep work into his projects and he has the ability to draw forth great performances from most of his leads. This is what the territory needs to compete on the world stage when it’s not relying on genre material. It’s extremely rare to find a filmmaker like this in Hong Kong and I’m very pleased to see that his directorial output has increased substantially in the last five years.
Andy Lau • Bey Logan • Chin Kar-lok • Daniel Wu • Derek Yee • Dragon Dynasty • drama • DVD • narcotics • The Weinstein Company