If you took the world of popular cinema as your bible then you might find yourself underestimating drug addicts. In the real world people can, and do, hold down jobs, raise families and pay off mortgages whilst pushing poison through their systems. In fact, for a lot of people who use addictive drugs regularly it is the very need to cope with these responsibiilties that drives them to escape into altered states. After all, who hasn't thought about how hollow life can be when reduced to a litany of responsibilities and empty duties? Who hasn't wanted that pressure to simply disappear or be less onerous for a short while at least?
Derek Yee's film follows Daniel Wu's undercover cop as he breaks into drug boss Andy Lau's world of dealing, sourcing and living off other's addictions. Like other moles in crime flicks, Wu is conflicted - respectful of Lau's patronage but aware of the misery he peddles. As the chosen successor, he faces a choice between being the Policeman who can't fit it and the insincere criminal he is forced to be. His anxiety is finally resolved when he learns to understand his addicted girlfriend's reasons for using, reasons that he has empathy for and that draw him towards her solution.
Protégé is intelligent and literary enough to start by asking the question of why people use drugs, and to provide its own answer and rebuttal in its conclusion. The journey between these two points is not a sanctimonious one but it does wander into melodrama and hyperbole towards its climax. What the film eventually states is enlightened and possessing enough humility to not confirm the safe prejudices of the distant spectator.
The film works well because of the largely blank performance of Daniel Wu. He is often a narrative tool to simply hear explanations and descriptions about how the business and politics of drug dealing work from the arch pharmo-capitalist Lau. As the mentor to Wu's titular character, Andy Lau delivers another anti-hero who is lost in the lies he believes and is driven by a bastardised loyalty to family and friends. He has written off those he sees as "scum" so he can profit from his role in their self-destruction. Lau is no crime kingpin, no stylised Tony Montana or Michael Corleone. He is a greedy man who has cut himself off from all compassion other than that he feels for his loved ones.
Shot in the rich and dark tones that have made Johnny To's recent films seem both luxurious and seedy, and with good ensemble work from the cast, Protégé can only really be criticised for an intemperate reveal at its end and a poor performance from Louis Koo as a malingering druggie. With Koo, it is sad that the writing attempts to avoid cliché only for him to revel in a performance which screams "look at me, I'm acting junkie".
Very powerful as a sad social drama and as a straight thriller of identity, this is a concerned melodrama with a message. For all of its understanding of human beings filling their emptiness, the film affirms that the only solution is to be better than we are for the next generation's sake.
Liberation release this film on a dual layer region free disc with an English dub alongside the original Cantonese surround and stereo tracks. This English dub is plain awful with badly matched voices in terms of character and synching and an almost complete lack of appropriate ambient effects. There is one scene in a paddy field hut in Thailand where two Americanised drug dealers talk with complete silence around them in the English dub whilst the air and insects chirp away on the Cantonese track. It's a poor English track but the Cantonese tracks are a damn sight better and at least integrated to the movements of the character's mouths. The surround mix concentrates on the uneasy atmosphere with plenty of doom laden bass and the sounds of the streets around the rears and sides. Voices are mixed clearly and audibly in all the tracks and some of the depth of the definition in the Cantonese 5.1 track is very impressive. The English subs are optional and very simple to read.
And here comes the but. It's a standards conversion - same length as the R3 disc that we reviewed and with motion shake and dullness giving it away. Consequently contrast is not that reliable and colours lack vibrancy. This is a fantastic looking film let down by combing and shaking due probably to this decision. It also has been edge enhanced rather too obviously. I can't imagine that the Deltamac disc we reviewed earlier looks worse than this.
Most of the extras from the Deltamac disc seem to have been ported over with two making of featurettes that you will find Noel's description of in the side panel review. The teaser and trailer are also brought over but the interview section of that disc seems to be a couple of minutes longer here with the leading four actors talking about their roles and Derek Yee talking about his intentions behind the film. This extra footage seems to be taken from the about drugs that was part of R3 disc. The only extra not ported over from the Deltamac edition is the photo gallery. All of these extras are standards conversions too and with optional subs.
An interesting film is given an ordinary transfer when it could have been far better and an awful English dub. The Deltamac disc is still in print and corrects all the issues here other than reportedly having poorer subtitles.