Although Protégé is a gangster flick, it is not an action movie. Rather, it’s a closely examined character study. Daniel Wu plays Nick, the next-in-line to a massive heroine empire. His mentor, Lin Quin (Andy Lau), has taught Nick everything he can about the trade. Meanwhile, the young man gets caught up with Jane, a drug using, single mother and her daughter. 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.
The upside of the sleazy underbelly of heroin culture is a world of luxury and privilege; the finest hotels, champagne and caviar. But at the end of every day Nick comes back to his grotty one-bedroom flat. The film takes noticeable pride in elucidating the progression of drug trafficking from its very bottom rung to the middlemen and finally to the benefits of the higher echelons. Problems start, and violence erupts, when customs agents stumble on Kwan’s operation and threaten to undo seven years of local police work in one blood-drenched afternoon.
To watch Nick go from one extreme to another, forcing out Jane and her daughter when she turns back to drugs is particularly painful since we know he really is a good guy. A big sore point are the characters which aren’t quite elaborated the way they should have been. But as with all films about drugs, there is also a rich cinematic pleasure in the visual language and rituals of drug taking – a kind of drug porn – that undermines the moral message.
Protégé is as much about honor, integrity and the possibility for redemption as anything. While I’ve seen this kind of movie from any number of international directors, this is the first time I’ve see it from a force in Hong Kong movies. 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. Hong Kong movies have been on a decline as of late and I am proud to announce that they are starting to come back to form.