Year of release: 2007
Genre: Triad drama
Director: Derek Yee
Action director: Chin Kar-Lok
Producer: Peter Chan
Writer: Derek Yee
Cinematography: Venus Keung, Chan Wai-Lin
Editor: Kwong Chi-Leung
Music: Peter Kam
Stars: Andy Lau, Daniel Wu, Louis Koo, Anita Yuen, Zhang Jing-Chu
Rated IIB for drug use, violence, language and sexuality
Movie Review Index
Drugs and their use have long been regarded with an evil eye by many people in Hong Kong. Just the possession of a small amount can lead to serious jail time, and even the suggestion of drug use can be critically damaging to a star's career. They have long been a touchy subject in movies as well. Sometimes even the mere showing of someone taking them can earn a film a Category III (roughly equivalent to the US' NC-17) rating.
So it's probably not surprising that there haven't been too many Hong Kong movies which center around the world of drugs, at least with any sort of degree of seriousness. So Protege -- especially since it stars Andy Lau and Daniel Wu, two of Hong Kong's biggest stars -- became one of the most hotly anticipated films of 2007. This reviewer can not only say that Protege lived up to the hype, it surpassed it in spades. Most modern Hong Kong movies (hell, entries from anywhere in the world, really) wish they could be this good.
Protege's story is a well-traveled path in the realm of Triad pictures, that of the undercover cop getting in too deep. The cop in question is Nick (Daniel Wu), who has spent the last eight years infiltrating a large drug-running operation led by a Triad boss named Quin (Andy Lau). Quin is terminally ill and looking for a successor. Nick is tapped to become the next big boss and seems to have the undercover operation well in hand, until he meets a junkie (Zhang Jing-Chu) and her child, which begins to blur the lines between right and wrong in Nick's mind.
This sort of plot, of course, has been done many times before. But director Derek Yee creates a believeable and realistic world. As with his One Nite in Mongkok, Yee produces a outstanding movie out of stock elements. Forgoing the melodrama favored by many directors in the genre, Protege never feels like an afterschool special or an obvious morality tale, even though there is undeniably an extremely strong anti-drug message.
Much of the credit to this has to be given to the two leads. Andy Lau seems to have settled comfortably into his role as the elder of Hong Kong cinema. A few years ago, a role like Quin's would probably just cause Andy to sit around and grimace slightly, but here he creates a very well-rounded and surprisingly sympathetic character. Daniel Wu (who, in many ways, represents the best of young guard of HK films) turns in one of his best performances to date. He plays everything very close to the vest, just like you might think a real undercover cop would. Relative newcomer Zhang Jing-Chu also does very well in what might be regulated into a "jade vase" role in other movies.
Hong Kong film-makers could do well by studying Protege. A smart script, solid acting, and tight directing are the ingredients for a good motion picture -- not a bunch of CGI, sappy ballads, or cute pop stars hamming for the camera. It's movies like this which give real hope that Hong Kong cinema is not dead just yet.