Drugs. The Golden Triangle. The villainous and violent Triads. The undercover cop losing his identity in a sea of competing personalities and passions. The boss who sees himself slipping, both power-wise and personally. These are just some of the earmarks of a Hong Kong action film, the kind that have swept through Chinese cinema over the last three decades and redefined the industry and the genre. While names like Chan, Chow, and Li push the limits of martial artistry, directors like Tung-Shing “Derek” Yee have tried to advance the type beyond the standard stuntwork and moralizing. Protégé is a perfect example of this ideal. Instead of a slam bang rollercoaster ride of thrills and fire-fighting chills, we get a contemplative and dark tale of loyalty, compassion, and most importantly, people.
It’s been over seven years since Nick went deep into the heart of the local Hong Kong heroin trade, and he’s become Triad mastermind Quin’s right-hand man. While our hero currently takes care of transportation issues, the dying mobster is looking for someone to take his place - and Nick seems to be the perfect candidate. As he walks the novice through the various stages of drug smuggling - the cooking kitchen, the importing and warehousing, the control of contacts and persons outside the scope of expectation, Nick begins dealing with a pair of important issues of his own. First, his supervisors want him to go all the way, to get lost in the role of crime lord until they can take down the suppliers and the sources. But even more concerning is a junkie named Jane. Stalked by her pimp/user husband and unable to care for her waifish daughter, Nick feels somehow responsible, and wants to help. All Jane wants, on the other hand, is another hit.
Protégé (new to DVD from Dragon Dynasty) is so unusual, so unique in the current realm of Hong Kong crime films, that it’s a little off-putting at first. When we see star Daniel Wu mastermind an opening act drug deal involving multiple cars and police tails, we except some sort of high speed antics. But as he will do throughout the entire near two hour running time here, co-writer/director Derek Yee defies convention, and then continues to push beyond the norm. This is a film about character, about getting under the skin of a diabetic, dying mobster, an undercover cop under the ever-present lure of crime’s seductive beauty, or an addict who will lie and manipulate - pathetic underfed child in hand - to get what she wants. In essence, Yee sets up a unique and quite dynamic lover’s triangle. It’s a complicated competition between duty, honor, adoration, money, greed, influence, and the sense of superhumanness that comes with being caught between both sides of the law.
Nick is indeed untouchable. He’s done this long enough to earn Quin’s trust, and when a rat is suspected, our hero has every move and excuse down cold. The moments when leader confronts lackey are electric, Andy Lau’s take on the role so dimensional and dynamic that we are surprised by the sudden outburst of rage. For most of the time, Quin is a merely a man, a human being facing a rush of mortality coming far too quickly for his unfinished life. He thinks he can beat the kidney disease that is slowly killing him, but as with almost everyone involved in this story, there’s a fatalism and a finality to his aura that can’t be denied. Even Nick wears such an “end of his rope” demeanor. Life undercover is destroying him as well, leading the former lawman down a path he doesn’t know if he can handle.
All throughout Protégé, Yee substitutes finesse for flash. There is only one major action scene, and it involves a police raid on a drug lab and the resulting escape. Yee gets his actors out on a series of rotting building balconies, and the suspense over who will survive is palpable. But this is a director who understands how to milk tension out of the simplest gestures. When Jane’s horrific husband shows up, looking like a reject from a Japanese punk band, his sinister stare is enough to raise the hairs on the nape of your neck. And when we learn just how far he will go for a fix, such evil becomes even more unnerving. Protégé is not a pretty film, but it’s not because of blood or body parts. The violence here is not visceral as much as it is dark and depressing.
As part of their standard DVD package, Genius Products and the Weinstein Company offer up a treasure trove of content. Bey Logan is once again on hand to walk us through the production and the film’s place in post-modern Hong Kong moviemaking. As usual, his commentary track is insightful, witty, and well worth a listen. We are then given a chance to hear from actors Daniel Wu, Zhang Jing Chu, and producer Peter Chan. Each have something to bring to the Protégé discussion, providing anecdotal spin on the material and a clear view of how such a novel approach bends the traditions within the genre. Toss in a trailer, a terrific transfer of the film itself, and the aforementioned material, and you can clearly see what drove director Yee to take on this intriguing tale.
Fans of the format, of regular roundhouse kicks and high flying kung fu fighting, will definitely feel flummoxed by this movie’s somber and thought-provoking tone. We truly get lost in the relationship between Nick and Quin, understand the competing claims haunting our hero’s conscience. We recognize why he is both attracted to and repulsed by Jane, and sympathize with the concept of wanting to help but knowing that it probably won’t. In fact, Protégé is so much about the human experience vs. the drug trade that it ends up feeling claustrophobic and insular. Yet thanks to Yee’s amazing skill behind the lens, and his accomplished cast, we experience all the horror, all the heartbreak. And when was that last time you could say that about an Asian action film?