Story: Kwan (Andy Lau) is a businessman and the number one in Hong Kong when it comes to drugs. However, the
drug lord slowly gets old, he has to struggle with diabetes and needs a new kidney as soon as possible. Nonetheless,
before he can spend his retirement with his family, he needs a successor, who he believes to have found in his
loyal right hand Nick (Daniel Wu). Nick is already in the business for several years and most importantly is smarter
than any of the rest of Kwan's gang. Still, what the drug lord doesn't know is that Nick is actually an undercover
cop, who tries for years already to get some clues about the masterminds behind the drug cartel. Until now, Kwan has
been exceptionally careful and so every hand knows only what it has to know about the other.
However, as Nick is becoming Kwan's successor he finally is introduced to the mechanisms and secrets of the business. At the same time Nick also has to see with his own eyes what impact drugs can have on an individual. He tries to help his drug-addicted neighbor Jane (Zhang Jingchu), a young mother, and her little daughter to cope with life, yet Nick now has to focus on Kwan as the game enters the final stage. Still, will Nick actually be able to put his long-time friend Kwan behind bars when he has to?
Review: You can't deny that in the last few years Hong Kong cinema went pretty much downhill. But still, every
now and then there are some gems that find their way onto screen, giving us hope and showing us that pessimistic
comments as the one above are everything but universally valid. "Protege" is one of those rare cases. A movie, that gives
an introduction to the world and manufacture process of drugs, whereas it almost looks like a documentary with its
detailed information. Yet at the same time it also manages to work on an entertainment and drama level. However,
the film isn't really easy to grasp at first. Only after half an hour it can arouse our interest. Even though
the work as a whole still feels incoherent and unfocused, there is a point that is not easily qualified that marks the
turning point in the movie, letting you secretly embosom "Protege", eventually.
Despite all that, there are first and foremost the many flaws that stand out in Derek Yee's ("One Nite in Mongkok", "Lost in Time") newest movie. Somehow, you just have to get the feeling that you are watching an anti-drug campaign flick, and yet simultaneously we also get the newest infos about market strategies of worldwide drug trade. An education film the kind of "How to become a drug lord in 24 hours?", you could say. The message, however, that is constantly thrown at us is that drugs are bad. Who would have thought it?! At least the director manages to convey this message not as intrusively as it might sound. This is mainly because of his effort to let the movie play on a very dark-nihilistic level, also. As it is there are some astonishingly shocking scenes that also have the necessary amount of emotional in-your-face impact. Which comes a bit as a surprise.
What's really working out well storywise is the juxtaposing of two narrative threads. On the one hand we have Nick, learning more and more about the marketing of drugs from Kwan, who himself sees his own person only as a businessman and can't understand why people are actually taking drugs, yes he even despises them for this. Nick on the other hand also has to witness how it is on the other end of the salesman-customer relationship. His neighbor Jane, with whom he starts a short-lived relationship, is drawn into the well-known vortex of desperation and inner emptiness. There is lots of excuses from her side, but as times goes by Nick more and more listens to his friend and enemy Kwan, who thinks that all drug-addicted are themselves to be blamed for their situation. Nick can't and isn't willing to understand Jane's behaviour and why she neglects her own daughter. Still, it's especially these scenes between Nick, Jana and her daughter which are the most emotionally engaging in the movie, so that one has to assume that Nick in his own seclusion finally seems to have found the family, which he was looking for his whole lonely life. Nevertheless, in the end it all comes out differently from what we might expect, of course.
Another big sore point are the characters which aren't quite elaborated the way they should have been. Andy Lau gives a very nice and charismatic performance as the drug lord, so that you actually get to see none of the cold-bloodedness, that you surely are expecting from such an individual. This means that we soon sympathize with him and his surprisingly average family, which is held together by his wife, portrayed by Anita Yuen. Nick just looks like Kwan's son in this family constellation and to a certain degree Nick also appreciates his friendship with Kwan, even though he knows that he will have to put him behind bars one day.
Despite all that, some of Kwan's and Nick's motivations remain in the dark. Moreover, it's also a bit interfering that Daniel Wu's performance is once again somewhat wooden every now and then, even if he is rather convincing in his role most of the time.
Concerning the acting achievements, Zhang Jingchu as Nick's drug-addicted short-time lover Jane provides the most impressive performance. In a stark contrast, there is Louis Koo and his absolutely overdone portrayel of the low-life drug-addicted gangster and husband of Jane. It's a good thing that Koo tries to depict a more unusual role than what he is used to play, but somehow his portrayel just looks to contrived, stereotypical and one-dimensional, which is the reason why it just won't fit into the movie.
Luckily, Derek Yee manages to get the maximum out of his pictures. The landscape shots during the drug tour through Thailand look very slick and glossy, while Jane and Nick's flat look very dirty and are only illuminated by somber light. The cinematography really adds to the movie's quality and is complemented by some nice fast motion shots.
"Protege", however, isn't just a drama, but first and foremost a relentless Hong Kong thriller. This becomes apparent at the latest when the drug raid takes place. Sudden bursts of violence make us forget to breathe until it all gets resolved in a thrilling escape from a building. The film handles some of the violent scenes, or decisions, twists, as well as some of the dead in a refreshingly unceremonial way. Which may deprive it of some emotional impact on the viewer, but also let's you sit in front of your screen in pleasent anticipation of what there is to come next.
Unfortunately, director Yee loses sight of the movie's main thread again and again, which makes "Protege" feel very disjointed at times. Especially, in the middle the film narrational-wise switches somewhat randomly between Nick/Kwan and the side story around Jane. In the hand of any other director this would have been fatal, but Yee manages to imbue his film with a certain kind of magic, which proves to be the glue for the several pieces, holding everything together. Notably, the ending, apart from the plot resolving around Jane's husband, is really convincing, giving the movie's message that "drugs are bad" the necessary amount of credibility.
All in all, this surely is no masterpiece, but Derek Yee once again succeeds in taking some well-known ingredients and make something special out of it. This is the more astonishing as we don't know what to think of "Protégé" until the last third of the movie, as the end product proves to be almost unique in the way familiar themes are mixed together. Ultimately, you'll still remember many of the movie's flaws, but the surprisingly satisfying feeling you get that you've finally seen a HK-thriller with a bit of substance after so many average/bad flicks from the former british crown colony is absolutely propitiating.