Last year two films were the main contenders at the Hong Kong Film Awards: “Tau Ming Chong” (“Warlords”) and “Moon To” (“Protégé”). The former, which earned 13 nominations, is an epic scale, often surprisingly violent period film about three blood brothers. The latter, which earned 14 nominations, is a modern crime drama. Both star the very prolific Andy Lau. “Warlords” ended up being the big winner of the night with eight awards, including best cinematography, costume design, director (Peter Chan), art direction, sound design, visual effects, actor (Jet Li), and picture.
“Protégé” garnered just two, including best film editing and supporting actor (Lau). Even though these are very different films both deal with issues of love, loyalty, and power. I got caught up in the Hong Kong Film Award buzz last year and bought an import copy of “Warlords.” At the time, I wasn’t as lucky to find an import of “Protégé.” Dragon Dynasty has remedied that availability problem, and on Feb. 24, released a special collector’s edition. Now that I’ve seen both films, I prefer “Protégé.” Don’t get me wrong, I liked “Warlords” but it didn’t quite live up to the hype.
At the center of “Protégé” is Nick (Daniel Wu), a man who has been an undercover narcotics officer for so long that, as he says, when he sees another cop he ducks out of sight. For the past eight years, he has been working for Lin Quin (Andy Lau), a drug kingpin known as “Banker,” who because of failing health – he has congenital diabetes that has led to nephrosis – is looking for someone to take over his operations. After fits and starts, he decides that Nick is his best choice, and he begins training him in the business. Lin teaches Nick, his protégé, how to make heroin “cakes,” and even takes him to Thailand so he can meet the warlords and the people who grow the poppy plants.
On the surface “Protégé” appears to be a variation of “Infernal Affairs,” when in reality it’s more like Hong Kong’s version of “Traffic.” For most of his career Nick only saw the movers and shakers of the heroin trade; the people who make and distribute the drugs. And then he meets Jane (Jingchu Zhang), a young mother and heroin addict, and his perspective changes. Separated from her husband (Louis Koo), Jane lives in a rat-infested apartment with her 4-year-old daughter, Jing Jing. Because of her mother’s situation, the child doesn’t go to school, goes hungry, and is often neglected. This is where Nick becomes their savior, for lack of a better word. He takes them in, gives them food, and, eventually, he and Jane begin an intimate relationship. As his affection for the mother and daughter grows, he begins to question his own role in their plight.
“Protégé” is a fascinating and heartbreaking look at the Hong Kong heroin trade. Fascinating, because it exposes us to all aspects of the business, from addict to warlord and everyone in between; heartbreaking, because it shows us the often forgotten victims of drugs – the children who grow up, thinking that this way of life is normal. The opening scene shows Jing Jing pushing a baby carriage in their dark and grimy apartment. Her mother has just shot up, so she’s semi-conscious. Instinctively – who knows how many times she’s done this – the girl stops playing, goes over to her drugged out mother, takes the syringe from her arm, and puts it in the trash can. Unless you have a heart of stone, it’s difficult to watch these scenes and not be affected by them.
Written and directed by Derek Yee, an actor who appeared in countless Shaw Brothers films, “Protégé” is a morality piece that shows you how bad drugs are not only for individuals but also for society. Despite its obvious agenda, you never feel as it is being delivered with a sledgehammer. “Protégé” may be about drug dealers, cops and addicts, but none of these characters are presented in a stereotypical way. This means that no one is just “good” or “bad,” but somewhere in between. The “Banker” is a complex character. He’s a devoted father and husband who doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. After all, he’s just a businessman who is serving a need. He doesn’t make anyone take the drugs, right? Just when we find the “Banker” utterly distasteful – he suggests that maybe they should cut the drugs with rat poison so as to rid the world of these addicts – he demonstrates his devotion to his pregnant wife.
Nick, too, has good and bad qualities. He’s seduced by the easy money but he shows genuine concern for Jane and Jing Jing. Both Lau and Wu give notable performances, but Zhang is the true standout. Not only did she have to master Cantonese for this role – she’s from Mainland China – but she had to make us believe that she’s really in the grips of an addiction. And she does. Her performance is beautifully nuanced, vacillating between vulnerability and outright despair. The young actress who plays Zhang’s daughter, too, is exceptional, as is Koo, who sports yellow-stained teeth and a frequently crazed expression.
“Protégé” should appeal to anyone who likes “Narc,” “Traffic,” “The Departed,” which is, of course, a remake of “Infernal Affairs,” or even A&E’s reality show “Intervention.” It has an almost documentarian attention to detail when it comes to showing us all aspects of the drug trade. (The scenes of mountainous Thailand are majestic.) It has at least one really exciting chase sequence that involves Wu leaping out of a window onto an air conditioning unit. There’s at least one brutal scene that features a cop, his hand and a sledgehammer. And, of course, it demonstrates the unnerving lengths that the addicts will go to score some drugs. For instance, Jane’s husband encourages her to have sex for money. Why do people take drugs? Is it to fill the “emptiness” inside? Or is it because people are blind to the opportunities for love around them? The film never gives you a definitive answer to this question, but leaves it up to you to decide. After a week of seeing it, I’m still wrestling with the issue.
Tung-Shing Yee (director) / Tung-Shing Yee, Man Hong Lung, Sun Go (as Go Sun)(screenplay)
CAST: Andy Lau … Lin Quin
Daniel Wu … Nick
Louis Koo … Jane’s Husband
Jingchu Zhang … Jane
Anita Yuen … Quin’s Wife