With its gangsters, undercover cops and drug-running storyline Derek Yee’s latest film would appear not to stray too far from standard template for every other action film coming out of Hong Kong at the moment, but in line with Johnnie To’s treatment of gangster culture in the Election films, in Protégé Yee has cut back from the glossy superficial glamour more familiar in the genre in favour of a quite gritty view of the Asian drugs industry and a consideration of its uncertain future.
The boss of a major drug-running operation in Hong Kong, Lin Quin (Andy Lau) is suffering from failing health due to diabetes and kidney trouble and is looking for a successor to run the business. He has adopted Nick (Daniel Wu) as his protégé, the young man in charge of organising the transporting of the heroin blocks manufactured at “the kitchen”, Quin hoping even to bring him into the family as a potential husband for his daughter. Nick shows great promise, keen to learn the business and start making some serious money for himself, but unknown to Quin, the reason for Nick’s curiosity is that he is a cop, working deep undercover for the Narcotics Bureau.
Having spent seven years working to gain the trust of the underworld gangs, Nick is close to breaking the operation, but in order to bring down the whole network he needs to find the source of Quin’s supplies. Quin is not a man to take risks, but Nick manages to convince him that cutting out the middle men and taking him direct to their sources involves less chance of things going wrong and could prove more lucrative from them – but Nick finds there is a serious human cost to their actions.
While the majority of the attention and film awards for the stylish reinvention type of Hong Kong crime thriller in recent years have understandably and deservedly been given to the likes of Johnnie To for Election and Andrew Lau/Alan Mak for Infernal Affairs and Confession Of Pain, Derek Yee has quietly been building a solid reputation - barring the misstep of Drink, Drank, Drunk - with impressive material of the likes of One Nite In Mongkok and 2 Young. His approach in Protégé is likewise pleasantly unencumbered by the conventions of the genre, the film having little in the way of action scenes for a good part of the first hour of the film, presenting instead a strong, rounded dramatic situation. With equal attention given to the difficulties faced by Nick’s heroin addicted neighbour Fan (Zhang Jing-Chu) and her abusive husband (Louis Kee), the film presents a multifaceted look at the ins and outs of the drug industry and the highs and lows of drug usage, realistically, unsparingly and unglamorously – there are few good guys to be found anywhere in this film. It’s not documentary realism by any means, but it is certainly far removed from the traditional treatment more commonly seen in Hong Kong action/crime films, and is as bleak and comprehensive on the evils of the drug industry as Soderbergh’s Traffic, but without the moralistic finger-wagging.
Yee’s solid direction is mirrored in the performances of his cast, the director returning to one of his own protégés, Daniel Wu, for the lead role and - as he demonstrated in The Banquet - the young actor is shaping up very nicely as a quite convincing action star and romantic lead. He remains difficult to read and doesn’t show a wide-ranging ability - his facial expressions never varying much beyond earnest intensity – but little more than this is required for the role of Nick. Andy Lau is well used to this kind of material, but even here the director seems to have mainly reigned-in any generic overplaying in his role of a gangland boss. As Fan, Zhang Jing-Chu (Seven Swords) brings more than just a love interest aspect to the film, and as the mother of a young child fully conveys the horrifying nature of her addiction much more convincingly than Louis Koo’s twitchy mannerisms. Collectively however, the characters and their fates are chillingly depicted on the screen towards an appropriately consistent, but almost unbearably downbeat ending.
Protégé is released on DVD in Hong Kong by Deltamac. It is released as a two-disc set, the film presented on a dual-layer disc, the extras on a separate single-layer disc. The set is in NTSC format and is encoded for Region 3.
Deltamac present the film with a beautiful transfer to DVD, one that is almost flawless with nothing in the way of analogue marks or digital artefacts. The image is remarkably clear, with good definition showing even in wider shots in interiors. Colour tones are excellent and the image remains stable throughout, with only a little flicker in some cross-lighting and the usual flatness of blacks and lack of shadow detail in.
There are three mixes of the soundtrack here which essentially can be described respectively as impressive, outstanding and dub. The Dolby Digital 6.1EX is strong and dynamic making good use of the whole surround speaker range, but the DTS-ES mix is positively thundering on a deeper, warmer register. Often in cases like this, the actual direct-recorded dialogue is the weakest element in the mix, and although it does sound a little bit thin in one or two places, in the main it is strong and clear enough to not be swamped by the music score and deep LFE rumblings when the action sequences kick in. The voices are much clearer in the Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 dub, but this is not going to be the mix of choice for most people here.
Optional English subtitles are included in a clear white font, that is slightly on the smaller side. The titles remain mostly outside the image frame in the black border, except when they stretch to two lines. The translation is mostly good. There are a few peculiarities of grammar and sense earlier in the film, but either these improve as the film goes on or I failed to notice them as much.
All the extra features are all on the second disc and all have English subtitles, however they amount to nothing more than the standard Electronic Press Kit features. The Teaser (1:22) makes no bones about the dark treatment of drugs in the film, and while the Trailer (2:33) is a little more conventional, it is intense and hard-hitting also. The admirable lack of a moralistic preaching tone in the actual film is unfortunately counteracted by the EPK Making Of: Hong Kong Version (15:15), the director and cast at pains to convey that the film regards drugs as evil and that the intention is to educate as well as be dramatic. Some behind-the-scenes filming shows scenes that do not appear in the final film and are sadly not included in the extra features. A Short version (4:54) of the making of is much more palatable, focussing on the cast, locations and shooting. The Star Interviews (4:24) feature the same soundbite snippets with all the actors that are used in the Making Of, with little additional material other than a 44 second chat with Anita Yuen. About Drugs (3:03), uses the rest of their interview material where they discuss the use of drugs in the film. Nothing new here either. The features are rounded out with a Photo Gallery (6:00), arranged by actor, giving you the opportunity to hear pieces from the music score.
Another strong feature from Derek Yee, Protégé manages to sidestep the kind of conventions you would expect from a genre thriller about an undercover cop trying to break a major drug ring, in favour of an intense, dramatic and wide-ranging treatment of all aspects of the business. As well as being no doubt authentic in its graphic depictions of the social consequences of drug usage, the film also feels accurate in its psychology and its downbeat tone - and, by god, it gets pretty bleak here. Although the extra features are quite weak, Deltamac’s presentation of the film is excellent with a strong image and thundering sound mixes.